Miami power couple ordered to replace illegally chopped mangroves

A Miami power couple under fire for chopping down mangroves blocking their million-dollar bay view in the wake of Hurricane Irma have been cited for illegally removing the protected trees and ordered to replace them.

Miami-Dade County environmental regulators, who enforce state mangrove laws, found that architects Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear, who is also a landscape architect, removed the trees and filled wetlands despite numerous past warnings and citations for illegally cutting the mangroves. A legal settlement, which had been reached after a previous violation, specifically spelled out rules for cutting and removing the trees.

Regulators plan to visit the Coconut Grove property next week to survey the damage before signing off on a plan to replant trees and restore the wetlands, said Division of Environmental Resources Management code enforcement officer JoAnne Clingerman.

What’s not clear yet is whether a penalty will be imposed.

“It’s early days right now to talk about that,” Clingerman said.

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Miami-Dade County environmental regulators say architects Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear illegally cleared a swath of mangroves at the bayfront property they own in Coconut Grove, shown here in November. Jenny Staletovich Miami Herald Staff

The couple enraged neighbors in the exclusive Moorings neighborhood when they sent workers with bobcats and chainsaws to cut mangroves and pull up stumps after the powerful hurricane slammed South Florida in September. The couple claimed that a damaged dock and part of a boat hull blown ashore by the storm carved a path through the trees.

But neighbors, who say the couple exaggerated the damage, began taping and photographing the clearing and complained to county regulators. On a street where the average home value comes to nearly $6 million, the battle was a remarkable clash of Miami’s elite. In one video sent to regulators and obtained by the Miami Herald, Nancy Reierson, an anesthesiologist married to Miami Dolphins team doctor John Uribe, confronts Fort-Brescia, the founding partner in Arquitectonica, an international firm behind some of the city’s iconic buildings.

The couple’s attorney, Howard Nelson, has said that they were acting under an emergency order signed by Gov. Rick Scott that temporarily lifted state laws and allowed property owners to clear storm debris.

“The issue is whether or not that impact was caused by the boat and dock, which we know it was, or the allegation that this was just a gratuitous attempt to remove mangroves. And I got to tell you, if this was going to be a gratuitous attempt to open a view, they should have picked a better place to remove mangroves,” Nelson said. “There’s going to be no view because it cuts diagonally across the mangroves.”

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A neighbor shot this photograph of the trees shortly after Hurricane Irma struck but before workers began clearing trees.

In a response to the county violation notice, the couple’s environmental consultant also said they were trying to address neighbors’ complaints about the “trash and smell.” They also worried that the boat hull posed a hazard and efforts to get the owner to remove it failed. Stumps needed to be removed to allow the heavy equipment to operate safely, the consultant reported.

But county officials disagreed. The governor’s emergency order still required a field permit to trim mangroves, they said. And because of the property’s long history of violations — a previous owner was cited for illegally removing 160 mangroves — the county has an extensive record on the property. Pictures taken before and after the storm showed that only a few trees were damaged and that many others were intentionally cut or removed.

This picture, taken in November, three weeks after Hurricane Irma, shows the stumps of cut trees. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

Regulators also found heavy machinery was used to clear wetlands where no damage occurred, and fill was illegally dumped on the wetlands. Restoration of the wetlands had just been completed under orders from a legal settlement for a previous violation caused when the couple installed a dock and walkway through the mangroves.

Slow-growing mangroves are protected by law because they provide important habitat for fish, crabs and other marine life. An endangered Florida crocodile had also been regularly spotted in the area. Mangroves also help stabilize coastlines and also increasingly help combat impacts from climate change by trapping carbon and fighting erosion from sea rise. Mangroves also have a built-in tolerance to hurricanes, with an elaborate system of prop roots that can often allow them to survive.

Biscayne Bay, once ringed by mangrove forests, has lost 80 percent of its historic canopy largely to development.

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A Google Earth photo of the mangroves before Hurricane Irma struck on Sept. 10, 2017. Google Earth

The couple don’t plan on appealing the violation, but also don’t agree with the county findings, Nelson said.

“We believe it was correctly handled,” he said, “but to the extent it wasn’t, we will make amends.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich