Friday, May 24

Marine biologist calls state’s fine against Sandpiper Bay and Resort for mangrove cutting ‘slap on the wrist’

It’s a punishment some feel isn’t fitting for the offense.

WPTV reported in May the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) was investigating more than 17,000 square feet of mangroves cut down along the shoreline of the Sandpiper Bay and Resort on the South Fork of the St. Lucie River in Port St. Lucie.

The resort was formerly known as Club Med.

Since then, FDEP issued fines for the defendants in the case, but some wonder if those fines are enough.

“I think they got off pretty easy,” fisherman Jim Dirks said.

Dirks was the first to report the cut mangroves when he saw the chopped roots while fishing. He took videos and pictures and sent them to FDEP and WPTV.

“That was one of my favorite snook fishing spots,” Dirks said. “[I was] angry. I mean, I won’t say it, but I think you know.”

Soon after, FDEP launched an investigation into the resort and found 17,789 square feet of mangroves, some more than 24 feet tall, were illegally chopped down to the root.

“They found dumpsters full of chopped-down mangroves,” Dirks said.

According to FDEP’s website, offenders can be fined up to $250 for each mangrove illegally altered, so Dirks expected some pretty hefty fines.

When FDEP issued penalties against the property owner, Store Capital Acquisitions, the lessee, Altitude Hospitality, and the landscaper, King of Lawns, who FDEP said cut the trees down, Dirks was surprised to see the penalty was just over $110,000.

“I think the fine was minuscule,” Dirks said. “There have been other people who have done less harm and were fined a lot more than Sandpiper Bay.”

A Jupiter couple was fined $1.6 million in 2012 for cutting down $109 mangroves. A magistrate charged them $15,000 per tree. While the couple negotiated a lower figure, Dr. Zack Jud, a marine biologist with the Florida Oceanographic Society, wondered why the resort’s starting fine was so much lower.

“I was disappointed, you know, in my mind I thought this was going to be a multi-million dollar fine, so to come in with a fine that barely cracks $100,000 tells me the state of Florida doesn’t value mangroves as much as they say they do,” Jud said.

Jud points out that when the fine is broken down the resort paid about 15 cents per square foot of mangrove cut down. In comparison, the average national price of a square foot of flooring is $7. The average Florida resident pays between $4 and $15.

“To me, that fine was a slap on the wrist and future developers will just look at that as a cost of doing business,” Jud said.

WPTV contacted FDEP, who said the $250 tree fine only applies to those who have a previous violation, adding this penalty is the largest issued in the agency’s history.

The agency also said they’re forcing the defendants to replant the mangroves, a cost not included in the $110,000 penalty.

“Florida is a fishing state. When you wipe out a mangrove forest like they did, it has an immediate impact on the fishery, an impact that restoration won’t fix,” Jud said. “This single action will undo decades of restoration work.”

WPTV also contacted Store Capital Acquisition, Altitude Hospitality and King of Lawns.

No one has gotten back to WPTV. However, in FDEP’s consent order, the resort claimed the trees were impacted by a tornado.

“Hurricanes and tornadoes don’t rip mangroves out by the roots,” Jud said. “Even if the trees get damaged by the winds, they’re literally built to withstand those kinds of winds. We also know there wasnt a tornado in the area that time.”

Jud and Dirks said they’re left with one last question: what will prevent the next developer from doing the same thing?

“It’s the cost of doing business for them. It’s really nothing,” Dirks said. “They spent millions and millions on the resort and $110,000 isn’t a whole lot.”

“It’s not enough to deter future developers from committing the same types of crimes against our environment,” Jud said.

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