The Coastal Star

Highland Beach: Owner of vacant land at odds with town over tree removal

Plan to build homes would include preserving 9 acres in Ocean Ridge as mitigation exchange

By Rich Pollack

If a tree falls on vacant, mangrove-filled property during a hurricane and local government requires the owner to remove it and others damaged by the storm, does the owner need a permit to restore the property?

In Highland Beach, town officials are saying the answer is yes and are blocking the landowner from doing any work on wetlands south of the Toscana condominium community.

Lawyers for the owner of what is known as the Golden City property say no, a permit isn’t necessary, because after Hurricane Irma in 2017 town officials knew what was being done with downed trees and had no problem with the removal of trees and the addition of fill.

The property recently came into the spotlight after town officials learned the landowner — Miami-based Golden City Highland Beach LLC — has filed a request with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a multifamily community on the property. 

The plans submitted in October show 38 residential units on the property. In addition, the landowner filed a mitigation plan in which it proposes preserving just more than 9 acres of mangroves in Ocean Ridge in exchange for removing close to 3 acres of mangroves and close to 2 acres of seagrass habitat in Highland Beach.

The Ocean Ridge property, known as the Priest property, borders the east side of the Intracoastal Waterway and is a short distance north of East Ocean Avenue. It is slightly over 8 miles north of the Golden City property.

“It just so happens the mitigation is not in the same town,” said Highland Beach town planner Mary McKinney, adding that most town governments prefer to have the mitigated property within its own boundaries.

McKinney and Town Manager Marshall Labadie say that in addition to meeting state and federal requirements, the property owner would be required to comply with Highland Beach codes and ordinances.

Currently, the property is zoned medium-density residential, which allows for up to six units per acre. Although the site is listed as 7.35 acres, with 5.35 acres of mangrove swamp and 2 acres of water, Golden City is seeking to have 2.36 acres are available for development.

Using the area available for development to calculate compliance with the zoning code, the maximum number of units allowed would be well under the 38 listed in the developer’s request to the Corps of Engineers.

Jamie Gavigan, an attorney representing the property owner, said his client is aware that it needs to meet a myriad of restrictions and is willing to do so.

“Golden City is planning to comply with local, state and federal regulations,” he said, preferring not to address specifics. “We’re not going to seek any variances.”

McKinney and Labadie say the town has not received any requests from Golden City and believe it will take two to three years of applications, permits and approvals before the project could start coming out of the ground.

On the separate issue of the removed trees, the town and the property owner are again at odds.

In September, the South Florida Water Management District and the property owner entered into a consent agreement in which Golden City agreed to pay $14,200 in civil penalties for filling the land where the trees were removed without a permit.

Golden City is also required by the Water Management District to remove fill at the small area of the mangroves and restore the area. Town officials say a permit is needed to do that and have issued a stop-work order.

“We’re very concerned about the loss of any mangrove wetland systems,” Labadie said.

Gavigan argues that a permit is not needed because the town knew the trees were being removed.

“We weren’t trying to do anything other than remove the damaged trees,” he said. “No one raised any issue at the time.”

For now, work on the area is on hold until an agreement is reached or a permit application is received. 

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