A 72-year-old Bradenton woman faces two misdemeanor charges for chopping down mangroves in her backyard without a permit. But Marcia Sloulin got by with a little help from her friend.
Complaints began flooding the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in late December alleging that Sloulin had significantly cleared mangroves in the backyard of her home in the 700 block of Hillcrest Drive, which overlooks Warner's Bayou East.
Her neighbors directly across the bay? Developer Pat Neal and his wife, Charlene.
DEP personnel visited the site in late January, but determined that Sloulin likely had removed invasive species such as Brazilian pepper. A week later, the department got notice that the rest of the plants were removed.
Without a permit, Sloulin had whittled almost all of the mangroves down to the root in the 1,480-square-foot riparian mangrove fringe behind her home, which describes the portion of a property owner's shoreline not extending more than 50 feet toward the water, according to DEP. Roots between 6 inches and 2.5 feet were recorded, and a 4-foot stump of a black mangrove was also found, a DEP compliance assistance offer stated.
This amounted to a "moderate" environmental resource permit violation, meaning that activity either would have required a professional mangrove trimmer or happened on land not owned or controlled by the property owner.
Sloulin declined to comment for this story.
Homeowners can trim within the riparian mangrove fringe to just 6 feet if the tree is currently shorter than 10 feet, as long as the process does not remove more than 25 percent of the mangrove's leaves. A professional mangrove trimmer is required for mangroves between 10 feet and 24 feet. Removing mangroves or trimming mangroves greater than 24 feet requires a permit.
Regulation of mangroves is spelled out in the 1996 Mangrove Trimming and Preservation Act, which aimed to address the importance of mangroves to an ecosystem as well as coexisting with homeowners.
"Marcia, you can't cut down mangroves. That's illegal in our state," Neal remembers telling Sloulin on a Sunday in April.
To rectify the situation, Neal said he introduced Sloulin to "very fine Bradenton lawyer" Patricia Petruff and environmental consultant Alec Hoffner with Palmetto-based E Co Consultants, both of whom have worked on Neal's projects.
Instead of taking Sloulin to court, FDEP agreed to a consent order with Sloulin, requiring that she pay a $2,000 settlement and plant 30 red mangroves and 30 white mangroves. The settlement was paid by E Co Consultants on behalf of Sloulin, according to an April 4 receipt.
"I was surprised how easily the state had let her off the hook," Neal told the Bradenton Herald, saying he thought what she was required to replant was "minimal" compared to how much damage she caused.
Her troubles don't end there. Manatee County code enforcement slapped her with a $500 citation in February for not getting permission to remove the mangroves. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also filed two misdemeanor charges against Sloulin, for alteration of mangroves without a permit and failure to possess a mangrove cutting permit.
Officers said Sloulin "was not entirely forthcoming and cooperative."
First, they said she did not say her real name, then she could not remember who helped her cut the mangroves, later telling the officer it was her friend "David." Then Sloulin told the officer she didn't know where her driver license was. FWC officer Timothy Hinds noted that she didn't know the name of the DEP contact, but "later she got frustrated," he wrote, and told him who the contact was.
Officer Ammon Fisher wrote that attempts to contact Sloulin were made four times, unsuccessfully.
"She basically tried to dismiss the incident, as if there was no need for FWC to be involved," Hinds wrote. "She told me that DEP had already been notified and that she had an upcoming meeting with them."
In court, she pleaded not guilty. When an FWC officer contacted the DEP, the inspector said "Sloulin had admitted to cutting the mangroves."
Even so, Neal said he has been neighbors with Sloulin for 32 years and considers her a friend.
When asked if he contributed because his home was directly across from Sloulin's, Neal said his reasons were "all of the above" to help Sloulin, his neighbors and all Floridians.
"I thought it was in the interest of all people," Neal said.
Neal said Sloulin paid for the fine, the lawyer and the environmental consultant, but he "paid a little extra" to the consultant to up the size of the mangroves and plant a salt-tolerant grass on the site, which he estimated to cost him between $1,000 and $2,000.
A neighbor, who spoke to the Bradenton Herald on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said some of Sloulin's mangroves were up to 25 feet high.
"What she did was absolutely unforgivable," the neighbor said. "It's a pretty big deal what she did."