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Miami Architects Illegally Cut Down Mangroves. Now They're $5 Million Richer

Jenny Staletovich
Architects Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear were cited by county environmental regulators for illegally cutting down these mangroves after Hurricane Irma.

A pair of Miami architects who infuriated neighbors and drew the scrutiny of county environmental regulators when they chopped down mangroves at their waterfront property in the wake of Hurricane Irma have sold the lot for more than double what they paid.


Advertized as having "wide open bay views," the two-acre Coconut Grove lot overlooking Biscayne Bay sold this month for $10.2 million. In 2005, Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear paid $5 million.

The deal closed without any new mangroves being replanted at 3300 S. Moorings Way. How much the altered view drove up the price in the tony neighborhood, where the adjacent house sold for $10 million in 2010, is hard to calculate. Miami prices for waterfront property since 1996 have increased 38 percent more, on average, than land-locked property, Zillow spokesman Alex Lacter said in an email. But the research did not factor in mangroves.

"All I can tell you is they don't tear down mangroves for nothing," said Tucker Gibbs, a land use attorney and long-time Grove activist. "And the only reason they tear them down is for the bay view."

This aerial photo shows mangroves at 3300 S. Moorings Way before the owner was cited for illegally cutting them after Hurricane Irma.
Credit Google Earth

The power couple, founders of the Arquitectonica architecture firm that helped shape the Miami skyline, were cited by the county's Division of Environmental Resources Management in 2017 after neighbors began complaining and videotaping Bobcats and workers uprooting mangroves in the days after the Sept. 10 storm.

Neighbors called police to try to stop the work. And in one angry confrontation, Fort-Brescia tried to bat away a cell phone as a neighbor questioned him about the work. The county finally issued an order to immediately stop work on Oct. 10.

Neighbors photographer the damage from Hurricane Irma at 3300 S. Moorings Way after the storm. They complained after owners began removing trees.

The couple said they were cleaning up after the hurricane and making it safe for workers to remove a boat tossed into the mangroves and dock demolished by the storm.

But neighbors were skeptical. The pair had been repeatedly cited for improperly damaging trees and wetlands since 2009 and 2010 when they asked the county to build a dock and open a 'window' in the trees for an environmentally sensitive stilt house they planned to build. Part of that approval forbid them from cutting trees after a hurricane.

The couple had just ironed out a legal agreement with the county to resolve the infractions when Irma hit.

Under a second agreement signed in May 2018 with the county, Fort-Brescia and Spear agreed to pay $18,500 in fines and begin replanting the mangroves within 30 days across 1,900-square feet of shoreline.

JoAnne Clingerman, the county's environmental code enformcement officer, said no trees have been planted in the nearly two years since the storm because the couple also planned to rebuild the dock. Replanting the trees before building the dock could have led to the mangroves being damaged, she said. 

"We didn't want new seedlings to go in and then those seedlings be destroyed during the construction period," she said.

The dock had not been rebuilt because the couple had trouble obtaining a federal permit to put down riprap to stabilize the shore first, said their attorney Howard Nelson. While he is not representing the new owners, Chicago investor Phillip J. Sylvester and his wife, Nelson said they plan to carry out the original plans to reconstruct the dock and replace the 800-square foot, 1980s-era house now on the property.

Selling the property means the couple will no longer be liable for replanting the mangroves, Clingerman said.

"They no longer control it, so we can't force them to correct a violation," she said.

That means the new owners are on the hook. A letter informing the Sylvesters of their liability was sent Tuesday. The couple have 10 days to respond to avoid being issued a notice of violation, the letter said.

The sale did not come as a surprise to regulators. Nelson said Fort-Brescia and Spear informed them of their plans to sell the property. He also argued the damage to the trees, which he says was caused by the boat and dock, did little to change the view.

"That didn't get changed by the mangroves being impacted. That won't be changed by the replanting of the mangroves," he said. 

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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