A Miami-Dade circuit judge has ordered Palmetto Bay’s vice mayor to hire environmental consultants to assess the extent of the damage he caused to the mangroves and wetlands on and bordering his bay front property.
Judge Sarah Zabel’s March 18 order is the latest development in a lawsuit that Miami-Dade County filed against John DuBois in September 2012, accusing him of illegally trimming mangrove trees and filling wetlands on the nearly $3 million, eight-acre property he purchased in 2000.
DuBois has filed formal notice of his intent to appeal. He did not respond to requests for interviews left via e-mail, text message and voicemail, but has previously maintained his innocence – publicly and throughout court proceedings – alleging that the environmental agency’s actions are part of a calculated political campaign to discredit him.
In March 2013, DuBois sued John Ricisak – the county environmental officer who first issued the citation – alongside some Palmetto Bay residents for allegedly conspiring to smear him during his vice mayoral campaign. DuBois alleges Ricisak lied on the citation, and invaded his privacy to inspect his property.
Both state and county laws protect mangrove trees because they are vital to the ecosystem and protect the shores from erosion. Property owners typically have to apply for permit to trim them, although the state does exempt some trimming from permit requirements.
The county first ordered DuBois to stop trimming in November 2010. When a subsequent inspection in December by Department of Environmental Resources & Management staff (now the Regulatory and Economic Resources Department) revealed further violations, a citation was issued the following month. DuBois paid the $250 fine in March 2011, but made no moves to replant.
In August 2011, the county sent a letter ordering DuBois to cease any landscaping work in tidal waters or wetlands and to work with the county to mitigate the damage. The county says DuBois never adequately responded to their complaints, and in September of 2012, it finally sued.
According an Environmental Quality Control Board ruling, aerial photographs showed a roughly 5,270-square-foot mangrove canopy had been replaced with palm trees and sod. The EQCB proceedings did not determine the full extent of the damage done.
“Typically people don’t fight us in a situation like this,” said Assistant County Attorney Tom Robertson, adding that DuBois had already filed a notice of appeal for the March 18 decision. “There’s no question that the violation exists. Most people say, ‘oh, let me correct it.’ Whether it was accidental or intentional, usually when you catch people, they fix things.”
Between administrative and legal costs, the ordeal has already cost the county somewhere in the vicinity of $50,000, according to Robertson. But he says DuBois stands to lose much more.
County rules allow for civil penalties of up to $25,000 per day per violation, Robertson said. Given the number of infractions, and how long this has dragged on, Robertson says that DuBois could be facing millions of dollars in fines.
Robertson says the county won’t try and collect in full – if DuBois agrees to resolve this with them before it goes to trial. Once it’s been determined that the violation occurred, the county wants to move on as quickly as possible to mitigate the damage.
“The purpose of having a penalty provision like that is frankly to coerce people to comply,” Robertson said. “And so if a person complies very quickly, you don’t want to penalize them. If a person fights you, the longer they fight you, the more you want the penalties so that other people looking at it will say, ‘oh, I really shouldn’t fight them, I should fix the problem.’ ”