Accused of clear-cutting trees and brush in a coastal buzzer zone, the owners of two properties on Knott Avenue questioned why they were being singled out when other homes in the area have clear violations, too.
Nancy and Joseph Costa, of 130 Knott Avenue, and Christopher Craven, of 132 Knott Avenue, were in attendance at a meeting of the Sandwich Conservation Commission on Wednesday, July 7. Mr. Craven’s wife, Mary, was unable to attend, but had written a letter pleading their case.
In her letter, Ms. Craven stated that she could not understand why they were being severely punished while other residents of the street are not facing enforcement for their own violations.
Commission member Cameron Murphy said that they were not looking to make an example of them specifically, but that the issue with the tree-cutting on the properties had been brought to their attention and needed to be addressed.
“We’re going to be looking at other enforcement of this,” he said.
Prior to the Knott Avenue discussion, Department of Natural Resources assistant director Joshua Wrigley informed the commissioners that he had caught a Salt Marsh Road resident in the act of cutting down trees on conservation land across the street from their property.
“He had a saw in his hand, actively sawing down a tree as I was walking by,” he said.
This resulted in a $200 fine for unpermitted activity in a dune and a $50 fine under the conservation bylaw. Any further violations will result in the resident’s being trespassed from the town conservation land.
Since Mr. Wrigley had already collected a fine for the violation, the commissioners did not have to take any action themselves.
Hearing this story made the Knott Avenue owners wonder why they were being put through a lengthier and more expensive enforcement process where they are facing fines as well as having to come up with a plan for re-growing what has been cut down, and the resident on Salt Marsh Road was only given a fine.
Mr. Wrigley said the other incident was handled that way because he caught them in the act of cutting. Additionally, the offenses are on a different scale.
The incident on Salt Marsh Road involved three trees, where Knott Avenue involves quite a bit of vegetation being cut on town property, he said.
“The board has to evaluate everything put before it on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “Different violations may require different remedies.”
Both Knott Avenue families stated that they did not realize that they were doing anything wrong at the time, with Ms. Craven writing that she wishes she knew then what she knows now.
The couples also took issue with allegations that they had cleared trees in order to improve their view.
Mr. Costa said that their property had essentially been a junkyard for 40 years before he and his wife bought it. He told the commissioners about the trashed beds and toilets that they had cleared from the yard along with the brush they had cut.
“All we did was clean it out,” he said, noting that he had not cut down any trees.
Mr. Wrigley said that he saw tree stumps on the conservation land abutting the property, which says to him that trees were cut down.
Mr. Costa agreed that the stumps had been there, but that he did not do the cutting. Instead, he said that he removed existing tree stumps.
“We were cleaning whatever was on the ground,” he said. “The stumps were there when we got the property.”
Ms. Costa added that once they were informed that they were doing something wrong, they stopped clearing anything.
Commissioner Roy Anderson said that they try to be consistent when it comes to enforcing the rules and questioned why they had not previously had complaints about the other properties. Ms. Costa said that she was not a snitch and did not want to report her new neighbors.
Fellow commissioner Lillie A. Peterson-Wirtanen noted that the commissioners had, in fact, briefly discussed the need to talk about other properties in the area while they were visiting the properties currently facing enforcement.
The commissioners unanimously agreed that they would pursue enforcement against the other properties in the neighborhood which are also allegedly in violation of conservation bylaws.
Chairman Scott Boutillier said that when it comes to enforcement, especially if they are pursuing these other violations, consistency will be necessary.
As a result, he said that the commission is likely going to want to have made a decision regarding enforcement for the current violations. He said that he would not want to throw out the process of pursuing a Notice of Intent in this case—which is required before replanting can begin—and have it come back and be used against them in the future.
Mr. Boutillier said that before requiring the property owners to file these notices, he said that the commission needs to discuss the matter with town counsel, which leaves the Knott Avenue residents in limbo.
Mr. Wrigley said that Kopelman and Paige is being consulted because of the unique nature of the situation: where the violation occurred on town property and was committed by property owners who live adjacent to where the violation occurred.
“Unfortunately it’s an instance where property owners disregarded property boundaries and conducted work on town land,” he said. “The commission has to figure out how to fix it, so it doesn’t happen again.”
The matter will be visited again at the July 21 meeting and the commission let the homeowners know that they would receive a letter with the final enforcement decision, once it has been made. They were also told that they would not have to attend future meetings if they did not want to, but they all replied that they would rather be present, so that they can be as informed as possible.