Miami-Dade County

It’s Donald Trump vs. Doral neighbors in landscaping war

Ed Russo, Donald Trump “environmental expert,” says neighbors need to stop “vandalizing” his boss’ trees.
Ed Russo, Donald Trump “environmental expert,” says neighbors need to stop “vandalizing” his boss’ trees. cjuste@miamiherald.com

For decades, homeowners who lived next to Doral’s signature golf resort enjoyed a special sort of tranquility: Their backyards overlooked serene rolling hills, picturesque greens and tiny lakes.

Then Donald Trump came to town.

After the Trump Organization bought the property in 2012, it launched a $200 million renovation, which included lots of additional landscaping. The new areca palms, buttonwoods and fishtails provided a more-secluded environment for golfers — something that will be on full display during this week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship, which starts Thursday.

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But the new landscaping , which neighbors claim is overgrown and unnecessary, also blocked out the golf course views for many Doral homeowners. Their properties — though valued at $500,000 or more — are not all up to Trump standards in the view of the Trump Organization.

It’s a little like Trump vs. Mexico, only with a greener barrier.

Some homeowners — having paid extra money to buy a house with the view of one of Florida’s most famed golf resorts — are seething. Angry letters have been fired off to City Hall. Others took matters in their own hands … literally.

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Over and over, Trump’s trees have been mysteriously chopped down or radically trimmed. The Trump Organization says calls to police failed to curb this “trespassing,” and a December letter from the city to residents (warning against any “vandalism/criminal mischief”) didn’t stop the problem either.

In recent days, as Trump’s presidential campaign enjoyed huge success, his company’s relationship with Doral neighbors sunk to a new low. As Trump is prone to do, his organization company filed lawsuits — this time against eight residents for alleged damage to the trees. Each suit, filed last month, seeks more than $15,000 in damages.

There's a thing in this country called property rights and you can't go on somebody else’s property and vandalize it.

Ed Russo, Donald Trump’s ‘environmental expert’

It’s a war where the residents appear to be seriously overmatched. Trump is represented by the law firm of Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney for Southern Florida. Resident Nancy Dominguez intends to represent herself in court.

“I'm not a billionaire, just a normal hard-working person,” said Dominguez, who denies damaging Trump’s trees. Dominguez called the lawsuit “very stressful.”

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Ed Russo, who works as Trump’s golf “environmental expert,” said the company turned to litigation only as a last resort, after residents kept cutting down vegetation.

“If there was or is a better way to do this, we'd love to do it,” said Russo, chauffeuring reporters around the exquisitely maintained grounds in a golf cart. “We're not the bully. We're not going on their property and doing anything. We’re not suing them for anything they didn't do. We don't want to sue them. We just want them to stop.”

The golf resort was in bankruptcy when Trump bought it in 2012 for $150 million — a bargain price that Forbes.com called “almost unbelievable.”

Trump then added additional landscaping, purposefully blocking out certain homes he personally found to be unsightly.

“There are homes along the fairways that are in serious disrepair,” said Russo,“And there are behaviors in people’s backyards that are inconsistent with a world class set of golf courses, like Donald Trump is attempting to create.”

Behaviors like what? Russo and Trump have cited residents playing music too loud, wearing inappropriate attire, hanging underwear on clotheslines and drinking too much alcohol. Russo also objects to residents sneaking onto the fairways for impromptu soccer matches.

But longtime Doral resident Morgan Levy — who is not among those sued — said Trump created a wall of trees for one simple reason: because he could.

“It's very upsetting because we paid a premium price for the golf course view, and now it's being taken away from us,” said Levy, 92. “I think it was very inconsiderate and very bully-ish of Mr. Trump, and it follows his pattern of doing what he wants, regardless of how it affects neighbors and other people.”

Levy has lived on the course for 31 years, said he remembers when “we would sit on our patio, with company, and look across the lake, and the beautiful golf course.”

The controversy has inspired the city to revamp its “landscape ordinance” to limit the percentage of a property that can be obstructed by trees. The details of that new ordinance are still being worked out.

A year ago, Doral City Councilman Pete Cabrera negotiated a truce of sorts, where Trump agreed to rotate some of his trees diagonally so that homeowners could still sort of see through them. Cabrera described it as a “vertical blind” effect.

But that solution didn’t work for everyone, as some parts of the resort simply don’t have enough space to spread the trees diagonally.

City email records show there have been other resident complaints about Trump’s trees.

A Nov. 28, 2014, email by resident Frederic Zuniga complained that Trump wasn’t maintaining his new palms properly, and Zuniga’s backyard had become a “dump” of debris and weeds.

The unkempt area attracted rats, Zuniga wrote, and then a two-foot snake appeared.

“When I looked it up on Google, I found that they show up when rats show up. It is not poisonous but for sure it scared my kids a lot,” Zuniga wrote.

Asked about the resident’s complaint, Russo, the Trump representative, said the company aggressively deals with any pests.

Doral City Council votes 3-2 to let Donald Trump keep the key to the city Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015, and on a resolution to condemn Donald Trump’s comments against Mexicans and other Latin American immigrants. Video by Jessica Bal / Miami Herald Sta

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