Archer Road Sonny's faces $71K fine for cutting trees


A major violation of Gainesville's tree ordinance restricting the removal of heritage oaks without a permit has occurred at 3536 Archer Road where several oak trees were cut down by an Ocala tree business hired to make room for parking at Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q, shown Monday, January 13, 2014 in Gainesville, Fla.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 at 4:50 p.m.

An area restaurant faces a fine of nearly $71,000 for the first significant violation of Gainesville's tougher tree ordinance.

The Sonny's BBQ on Archer Road ran afoul of the city's tree protection regulations in November when live oaks were removed from an undeveloped, treed area between Archer Road and the restaurant's parking lot.

Looking for better visibility from the roadway to stay competitive with other restaurants along Archer, Sonny's ownership obtained a permit to remove a double-trunk sweetgum tree and underbrush, Linda Demetropoulos, the city's nature operations and cultural affairs division manager, said at the December Tree Advisory Board meeting.

But an Ocala company hired by Sonny's also removed three protected live oaks and cut down trees and cleared land outside the permitted area and within a buffer in place to protect adjacent wetlands, according to a code enforcement violation. Today, stumps are all that remain of the live oaks.

Measured at a point 4 feet off the ground, the three live oaks had diameters of 22, 27 and 29 inches. As native trees with a diameter of 20 inches or more, the live oaks were protected heritage trees under the stricter ordinance Gainesville city commissioners approved in June 2013.

Under the old ordinance, the removal of those trees would have required replacement on an inch-for-inch basis.

For the unpermitted removal of heritage trees, the new ordinance says the combined diameter of the trees planted as mitigation must be twice the total diameter of the trees removed.

The new ordinance also includes a cash penalty calculated by a formula that takes into account the trees' trunk area in square inches. When a heritage tree is removed without a permit, that penalty is doubled.

For the tree removal at the Archer Road restaurant, Sonny's Franchise Co. out of Winter Park now faces a $70,945 fine and a land restoration requirement that includes replanting nursery-grown live oak trees.

That money would go into the city's tree mitigation fund, which puts money toward tree plantings on public property or the purchase of conservation land.

The company faces a Feb. 17 deadline to come into compliance before code enforcement fines begin to pile up.

Owner Bob Yarmuth, who purchased the Archer Road Sonny's in 1991, said he plans to pay the fine and implement the restoration plan for the property by the city's deadline.

Yarmuth called the violation of the tree ordinance "unfortunate and unintended."

"We screwed up," he said. "We are going to pay the fine because we screwed up and make a bad situation as good as it can be."

Asked if he believed the fine levied under the tougher ordinance was fair, Yarmuth said the company violated the ordinance and will deal with the consequences.

"They obviously thought it was important or they wouldn't have passed it," he said of the City Commission. "They obviously thought it was fair or they wouldn't have passed it."

Yarmuth said with one exception he had "nothing but positive things" to say about the way city staff handled issuance of the initial permit and the response to unpermitted removal of the live oaks.

He said he did take issue with comments made at December's Tree Advisory Board meeting stating that Sonny's hired the Ocala company because a Gainesville company, Gator Tree Service, refused to remove the live oak trees because the owner knew the city would not have permitted it.

"No one refused, and then we went the other way and sought someone who would do our bidding," Yarmuth said.

Yarmuth declined to identify the Ocala company that cut down the trees.

Gator Tree Service owner Anthony Dobosiewicz said he was contemplating submitting a bid on the Sonny's job and contacted city staff for clarification after he saw that the live oaks were not included on the tree removal permit. Dobosiewicz said after he confirmed the trees could not be removed, he decided not to bid on the project and did not have any more communications with Sonny's until the owner contacted him after the trees were down and the company faced a city code enforcement action.

The city's more strict tree protection ordinance was more than a decade in the making. It narrows down the list of protected trees and focuses its attention on specific healthy "high quality heritage trees" — a group of about two dozen species that includes the live oak, Southern magnolia, tupelo, elm, American holly and longleaf pine.

In early June, the City Commission approved the tougher ordinance 5-2, with Mayor Ed Braddy and Todd Chase in dissent.

At that meeting, Braddy said the ordinance — which was 72 pages long when it included the stricken-through language removed from the old city code — was too complicated, had "considerable cost impacts" for businesses and small developers and was a product of the "misplaced" feeling that, without regulation, land would be clear cut to make way for development.

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