Famed architect Fort-Brescia confronted over cutting down protected mangroves
For the last decade, the powerhouse couple behind Arquitectonica, a renowned architecture firm that has shaped skylines from Miami to Singapore, have been wrestling with a more earthbound problem: how to trim the protected mangroves blocking a million-dollar view of the water in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods.
Thanks to Hurricane Irma, neighbors say Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear finally found their fix. Using the powerful storm as cover, they say the couple carved up the stand, opening a new vista to Biscayne Bay.
“I don’t know on what planet that isn’t a violation,” said neighbor Karen Holzman. “I’m just so tired of somebody thinking that the rules don’t apply to them.”
In the days after the storm, angry neighbors called county environmental regulators, who saw enough damage to issue a cease and desist order. They photographed a swath of newly lopped trees and videotaped workers using chains and trucks to pull up stumps and churn up a protected wetland after a Bobcat got stuck. They called police to try to stop the work. In one heated exchange recorded by a neighbor, Fort-Brescia angrily tried to bat away her phone as she questioned him.
“Are you filming, Nancy?” Fort-Brescia asks as he approaches Dr. Nancy Reierson, an anesthesiologist married to Miami Dolphins team doctor John Uribe.
“Yes I am,” she responds before Fort-Brescia hits the phone in her hand. “And I’m also filming the mangroves that have been cut down.”
Around the county, many healthy trees were likely downed after the storm by people in a hurry to clean up, or developers clearing pesky trees. Neighbors on Miami Avenue peppered city officials with complaints and emails after one property owner stripped his lot. He later said he had fled the storm and landscapers mistook his instructions. But none has reached quite the level of scrutiny being applied to 3300 S. Moorings Ave., where neighbors who live in million-dollar houses view the cutting by the architects — who according to tax records have a primary residence on another million-dollar block less than five minutes away — as an easy way to boost their property value.
An attorney for the couple said the neighbors are mistaken. Irma, not his clients, decimated the stand, said attorney Howard Nelson, who blamed a broken sailboat hull and dock for felling the trees during the storm and leaving behind a field of debris.
An emergency order signed by Gov. Rick Scott a week before the Sept. 10 storm, he said, allowed for that debris to be removed without a permit. Although the order specifically says a field permit should be obtained to cut mangroves, Nelson said dead mangroves don’t count.
“We weren’t trimming upright mangroves. These were trees that were downed,” he said. “What’s better for the habitat itself, for the protected species? To leave it alone and just leave that boat there and leave the downed dock there while it continues with wave action to destroy more mangroves? I think the clear answer is what Bernardo allowed those crews to do.”
County environmental regulators, who have opened an investigation, aren’t so sure.
“It’s really to protect life and limb and property,” Pamela Sweeney, the section manager for Coastal and Wetlands Resources at the Division of Environmental Resources Management, said of Scott’s order. A separate county rule requires property owners to submit a report on any unauthorized work within 14 days, which Nelson submitted Nov. 3. Natural Resources Division Chief Lisa Spadafina said the county is reviewing that report, and awaiting a replanting plan, before issuing a response.
But neighbors wonder what exactly was in danger, since the single, small stilt house on the property sits hundreds of feet away.
“It was all very suspicious doing the cutting on a Saturday and Sunday. Especially when no one lives there and there was no danger to anyone,” Robert Elliott, who lives across the street, said in an email. “I think this could impact how the water flows into the Moorings. And they should be replanted.”
Biologists also say that hurricane-hardy mangroves, which help prevent coastal erosion and fight climate change, can easily recover after being toppled, thanks to their industrious prop roots that shoot like spiderwebs from their trunks.
“If I were trying to maintain a mangrove forest on that shoreline, I would have left any solidly rooted buttonwoods, black or white mangroves for three months or so, till I was sure they weren't going to sprout,” said Florida International University landscape ecologist Mike Ross, who has spent the past 25 years studying mangroves downed by Hurricane Andrew.
Dormant buds often lurk in the mangrove trunks, “which would give them a head start on any planted or freshly established seedlings,” he said.
The post-Irma clearing is the latest in a history of mangrove violations involving the “starchitect” couple since 2011. And given their reputation as Miami-centric designers, it’s hard to square with their modernist tropical style.
According to their website, their firm “carried the banner of Miami architecture around the world.” The 1980s television series “Miami Vice” helped make famous an early work: a bay front condo with a five-story cutout — embellished with a hot tub and a single palm tree — that established their skill and aesthetic.
In more recent years, the firm designed the AmericanAirlines Arena, Brickell City Centre and a collection of sleek condos. The American Society of Landscape Architects recognized Spear in 2015 for her sensitive landscaping at the new downtown Pérez Art Museum.
“Extraordinary synergy is achieved between light, shade, air, water, vegetation and structure, advancing the practice of designing for an uncertain future,” the award proclaimed.
Years ago, the lot on Moorings Way was also pretty resilient. Trees covered nearly the entire two acres, an oasis of untouched tropics in the growing city.
“It was where we grew up, where we could explore nature and enjoy nature and not be stuck in our homes watching television,” said Jim Sadler, who lived in the neighborhood for 54 years. “There were so many mangroves you couldn’t see over the property.”
They’re not the first owners of the property to run afoul of laws protecting mangroves. In 1983, former Chalk’s airline owner James Confalone purchased the lot and began chopping trees. Confalone told county environmental regulators that the city had authorized the removal of invasive Brazilian pepper and Australian pines. But when an assistant county attorney passed by one August day with his wife, he witnessed hundreds of mangroves being downed and demanded to know what workers were up to.
“The men dropped their saws and fled, leaving shirts and saws behind,” he wrote four days later in a request for an emergency injunction. In granting the request, a county judge said the “flagrant un-permitted cutting” posed a “real and imminent threat of irreparable harm.”
Confalone was eventually cited for downing 160 mangroves — county records show he also hauled in at least 15 truckloads of fill — and agreed to replant 2,700 mangrove seedlings and remove the fill on a quarter acre. After a decade of doing nothing, the county settled the case again in 1997 by allowing Confalone to pay $48,787 to a Biscayne Bay restoration fund, records show.
After Fort-Brescia and Spear purchased the property for $5 million in 2005, they got to work making improvements. They won permission to build a dock and a boardwalk in 2010. They also asked to create a “window” through the mangroves in anticipation of building an environmentally sensitive stilt house — in addition to the small house already there — that would take advantage of the bay breezes, their attorney said. But members of the county board that approved the work were leery about allowing so many slow-growing mangroves to be trimmed.
“I’m very unhappy with this,” chairwoman Claire Bradshaw-Sidram said at the time. “I have been on this board, I don’t want to say how long, I guess I’m the oldest around here, and I have never, ever seen anything like this before.”
Bradshaw-Sidram also wanted it made clear that “if there’s a hurricane, then they are not allowed to come in and take more away than what is there now.”
During and after construction of the dock and boardwalk, the couple were warned repeatedly about illegally cutting mangroves and mowing wetlands. At least five warnings and violations were issued, according to county records. They have yet to submit a permit for the new stilt house.
Then in January 2014, an attorney who had also represented Confalone in his dispute three decades ago contacted DERM director Lee Hefty to ask why the couple’s request to trim and “window” the trees, which requires a county variance, had not been scheduled before the board of county commissioners.
“Bernardo is understandably upset,” he wrote.
Staff said in addition to not receiving the required building permit for the trimming, the repeated violations were “the larger issue.” Within a month, the couple and county began working on a consent agreement to fix the problems by maintaining and monitoring the wetlands. Stumps should not be removed, the order said. Spear also applied to become a licensed mangrove trimmer, but was told she needed to complete a certification exam. In March of this year, the couple finally finished the agreed on restoration efforts, records show.
Then Irma hit. In the days after the storm, neighbors in the tree-hugging neighborhood — tree wars are notorious along its shaded streets — say they were relieved to see so few trees downed. A prized banyan near the guardhouse planted in 1929 survived along with most of the big oaks, banyans and palms. When they wandered down to the water, where the homeowner association owns a common area and a croc can frequently be seen, they say few mangroves were toppled. A picture snapped by one neighbor shows some trees along the shoreline downed, but the canopy far from shredded.
But days after the storm, Sadler said he spotted workers downing what appeared to be healthy trees on Fort-Brescia’s property. The crews on the scene were not approved by the county to trim protected mangroves. Some neighbors provided video, although they refused to be named for this story, worrying about the couple’s influence. Reierson did not return voice messages and texts to her cellphone, but in the video sent to DERM, she tells Fort-Brescia she has repeatedly photographed the work.
“Did you come here when this, to see what was happening before?” Fort-Brescia asked.
“I haven’t been anywhere but here, OK,” she answered. “Maybe you should have been managing this.”
“This is illegal,” Reierson tells him again. “When you cut down live mangroves that is illegal Bernardo.”
About a week later, on Columbus Day, neighbors said they again videotaped workers at the site, removing stumps that were all that was left of the trees.
Today, the lot is a manicured, nearly treeless rolling lawn, stretching 800 feet to the shore. All that’s left of the wetland is a mitigation area, intended to make up for the years of abuse, and a leftover fringe of mangroves.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich