Ponte Vedra residents call for strengthened tree ordinance after homeowner clears lot

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A homeowner on Ponte Vedra Circle (off San Juan Drive) has cut down dozens of trees on his property, and neighboring residents in the heavily wooded area are not happy.

According to St. Johns County Spokeswoman Sarah Hand, the intent of the homeowner is to clear his lot, demolish his existing house and construct a replacement. Hand noted a residential clearance sheet was submitted by the homeowner to the county on June 14, and a site plan including tree removal is currently under review.

Pete Loftis, a Ponte Vedra resident who lives near the soon-to-be demolished home, suggested that the property owner shouldn’t have purchased the lot in the first place.

"What a lot of us are wondering in the neighborhood is why in the world would you buy on a street that is canopied and then cut down live oaks?" he asked. “These trees hold falcon nests; they're beautiful."

Loftis and other residents and local groups have responded by calling for a stronger tree ordinance from St. Johns County to prevent a similar scenario in the future. Current regulations, the neighbor argued, are "extremely weak."

"We're currently working on strengthening the tree ordinance," he added. "The tree ordinance today heavily favors developers. If you want to come in and mow down trees, you can do just that. You can't do that in Amelia Island, you can't do that in Neptune Beach, Jacksonville Beach or St. Augustine, but you can do it in Ponte Vedra."

Another neighbor, Lauri Rice, said every other coastal community she has researched enforces stronger regulations. She also noted that protecting trees in Ponte Vedra could be an uphill battle.

“It looks like we’re going against contractors,” she said. “Our area is already fully developed; all of our utilities are underground, and we have huge multi-century oaks that nobody wants to protect.”

Suzanne Konchan, growth management director for the county, said the property owner did not break any laws, and he voluntarily agreed to temporarily stop clearing his lot while going through the permitting process associated with building a new home.

"He was not in violation of the code when he was taking those trees down and no specimen trees were taken down," Konchan said. "There is one specimen tree on the property, a Magnolia in the back of the property. As part of our review process, we'll be working with them for the protection of that tree."

Furthermore, Konchan said the county has been in contact with disgruntled residents and has been reviewing possible code amendments with respect to the current tree ordinance.

"We've invited these residents to join us and participate in the community discussion that is ongoing," she revealed. “We are in an engagement process with the community. We've had others that are interested in tree regulations, and so I do anticipate that people will have continued discussion on this topic and it could lead to some changes to the land development code. What form they take and how they're crafted, it's just too early in the process to predict."

While he respects private property rights, Loftis asserted cutting down a multiplicity of trees can change the integrity of entire neighborhoods. Groups of healthy trees help protect communities from hurricane impacts, he argued, and isolated trees are more likely to get blown down during a storm.

"I like and respect private property laws that allow people to do what they want to do on their property," he said. “But when what you do changes the integrity of a neighborhood, that's why we need laws because we have irresponsible people that feel like they can do anything they want to do to a piece of property."

Rice, who also supports private property rights, said she’d like to see homeowners try and save trees whenever possible.

“I just want there to be some forethought,” she said. “If you have a lot with some very large oaks and that oak tree does not lie within the plot plan of your house, let’s try to save it. If it’s diseased or a threat to your house then yes, take it down.”

Rice also appealed to the environmental impact of cutting down trees on the Ponte Vedra Circle property. After visiting the lot, she noticed eight different species of birds, including four types of woodpeckers, various wildlife and an entire ecological system.

Although a new tree ordinance won’t be passed in time to save the trees at the Ponte Vedra Circle propery, Loftis, Rice and others are pushing for change. According to Rice, Loftis has been asked to take part in a series of County Commission meetings that could lead to a strengthened ordinance.

"My personal objective is to make sure that this can't be done in the future," Loftis said. “What I'm saying is within reason; people need to be reasonable.”

The Recorder was unable to get in touch with the homeowner in question. Any additional input will be added to the online version of this story.

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