Friday, April 12, 2024

Wilmington mayor addresses tree fines for developers, says city has mitigated fines for individuals, too

Developers who cut down trees without permission are fined thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars. But those fines are often waived in later negotiations. Many have asked: what about individual residents?

Photograph of oak trees being taken apart after they were cut down with out a permit on the State Street Companies' Galleria property. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy City of Wilmington)
Photograph of oak trees being taken apart after they were cut down without a permit on the State Street Companies’ Galleria property. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy City of Wilmington)

WILMINGTON — More than one major development in Wilmington has received fines for cutting down trees without a permit only to see those fines waived as part of a deal with the city. Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo addressed those deals, and said the city has tried to be fair in working with private property owners, as well.

Galleria project on Wrightsville Avenue

In 2013, developer Jeffery Kentner, president and CEO of State Street Companies, purchased land on Wrightsville Avenue for a planned (but as-of-yet not formally proposed) mixed-use development. Two years later, State Street cut down a number of Live Oaks on the property, which had since been annexed into Wilmington. The city fined Kentner $13,000 –– but later cut a deal, dropping the fine in exchange for planting new trees.

Related: Three years later, Wrightsville Ave Galleria developer hasn’t paid fine or replanted trees

According to Saffo, the deal also safeguarded a number of oak trees that presently line Wrightsville Avenue; the trees sit on NCDOT right-of-way, and Kentner had received permission from the DOT to cut them down.

Saffo said he called Kentner back in 2013.

“I called Mr. Kentner, I said, ‘Jeff, you can do what you wanna do, you have permission from the Department of Transportation, it’s the department’s road, but my recommendation to you would be not to cut those trees down — it would be a bad precedent, you’re a new developer, you’re developing a pretty significant piece of property here in town,” Saffo said.

According to Saffo, Kentner agreed and left the trees, at least for the time being. But two years later, Ketner cut down the oaks on the Galleria property, trees which were protected by Wilmington ordinance.

“He subsequently went on his site, and cut down some trees there. He said that those were going to be in his site plan, and would be cut down eventually, because that’s where buildings and garages and so forth would be. But he never submitted a plan to us, so he violated the ordinance,” Saffo said.

The city fined Kenter but negotiations followed shortly after the fine was issued. As with many tree ordinance violations, property owners – in this case, Kentner – are required to replant trees in addition to paying fines. And while the city stuck by the requirement that Kentner would replant dozens of trees, Saffo said when it came to the fine he saw an opportunity to protect the oaks along Wrightsville.

“So in that discussion, was the fact that it was 63 trees that he had to plant – which I believe he is planting now – and the $13,000 discussion was, and I think I may have been the one that brought it up, was that [Kentner] still has the permission and the right to cut down the trees on Wrightsville Avenue, and I’d like to see those trees up. So in lieu of him having to pay that $13,000 fine, I would negotiate that we drop that – if – we have the guarantee that he’s not going to cut down the oaks on Wrightsville Avenue,” Saffo said.

According to Saffo, city council unanimously approved dropping the fine in favor of a promise not to cut down the trees.

Village at Mayfaire

Fifty oak trees were cut down at the Village at Mayfaire without permission and replaced with palm trees, now the city is trying to cut a deal with the developer to avoid a $20,000 fine (Port City Daily/Ben Scachtman)
Fifty oak trees were cut down at the Village at Mayfaire without permission and replaced with palm trees; the city later cut a deal with the developer to avoid a $20,000 fine. (Port City Daily/Ben Scachtman)

Last April, the Village at Mayfaire Condominium Owners Association (COA) cut down fifty oak trees, claiming they were diseased. In addition, the COA replaced the oaks with palm trees, which the city’s code enforcement office rejected as acceptable replacements. The COA was fined $20,000 but that fine was later dropped as part of a deal with the city.

Related: Wilmington proposes deal with Mayfaire developer to waive $20,000 fine for destroying 50 oaks without permission

Saffo noted that the trees were diseased and would likely have come down anyway, but acknowledged that the COA did not get a permit.

“When our tree arborist found out about it, they were replaced with palm trees, which there’s a lot of internal debate about — whether or not they’re appropriate for our environment. Some people love them, some hate them,” Saffo said. “But they’d already made the effort to replace the trees – just the wrong ones.”

Saffo said council decided not to make the COA take down the palm trees, but “all collectively said they need to make up for the trees.”

Council considered it a compromise to drop the fine — provided that the COA replace the oaks with appropriate trees within by April 1, 2019; if not, the $20,000 fine will be upheld in addition to a fine of $100 per unplanted tree, per year.

What about ordinary residents?

The City of Wilmington is fining the owner of the property at 1102 South 3rd Street for cutting down trees without a permit (Port City Daily/Courtesy Google)
The City of Wilmington fined the owner of the property at 1102 South 3rd Street for cutting down trees without a permit. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Google)

Developers usually have the resources – and relationships – to know the ins and outs of city ordinances, but what about ordinary residents?

Related: Wilmington property owner fined thousands and told to plant 25 trees for cutting without permit

“That’s a good point,” Saffo said. “We used to fine people for trimming Crepe Myrtle, I think, and there was a lot of confusion about that — I think we need to do a better job in our newsletter to get the info out.”

Saffo also addressed one particular incident that has drawn public attention: the owner of the former Ronnie’s Crab Shack property on South Third Street, Lyle Fisher.

Fisher cut down six trees on the property that he thought were precarious, but did not file for the $25-dollar permit. The city fined Fisher $3,000 and ordered him to replant 25 trees – a considerable task given most of the lot is a parking lot. In October, Fisher was already paying his fine on an installment plan.

Saffo said he understood why people felt it was unfair.

“I felt the same way — and we are trying to find a solution to that, because we all on council felt that it wasn’t fair that he was going to pay thousands of dollar — I personally felt that, and I know we are working on a way to mitigate that,” Saffo said.

Saffo later confirmed the city did negotiate a deal with Fisher late last year, reducing the fine from $3,000 to $200, and dropping the order to replant 25 trees in lieu of asking Fisher to replant six trees – the number he originally cut down.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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