Miami Family Cut A Tree That They Planted. Then Came A $24,000 Fine And A Battle With The City

Oct 30, 2019

Say you want to cut down a tree on your own property -- or even just trim it. That might sound simple enough but in some places residents need to get permission from the local government first. Not having the right paperwork can have costly consequences, as this Little Havana family can attest to. 

David Maer considers himself a good neighbor. He’s lived off Southwest 12th Avenue in Little Havana for decades, and just down the street, on the other side of the Miami River, he works on 12th Avenue as one of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle’s top deputies, helping hold murderers, robbers and human traffickers accountable. 

Maer is on the board of the Miami River Commission, which holds its meetings just off 12th Avenue near the river. On Facebook, his profile’s name is “Doce Avenida” — Spanish for 12th Avenue.

About a block away from Maer, the Ceballos family also consider themselves to be good neighbors. The Argentinian immigrant family bought their 12th Avenue house in Little Havana in 2002, and went about making the home their own. In 2003, mother Ana Gigena and daughter Camila Ceballos planted a royal poinciana tree in the front yard near the sidewalk. For years, its bright red flowers hung above the avenue.

“It was a humongous tree. It was beautiful,” Ceballos said.

Years later, the pretty tree would create a wedge between the two neighbors, and in the process expose the fault-lines of a controversial Miami ordinance that is both fought against and protected with equal zeal: the so-called “tree ordinance,” that imposes stiff fines on property owners for cutting or trimming trees without a permit.

A photo from 2005 shows the royal poinciana tree two years after it was planted by the Ceballos family.
Credit Courtesy of Ceballos family

The story begins on an August afternoon last summer. Maer was driving down the street when he saw a scene that made him stop the car.

“What I see is a royal poinciana cut up into blocks, intertwined into the electric lines,” Maer recalled.

The royal poinciana, planted 15 years earlier, had been cut by a company hired by the Ceballos family. The family felt that the tree was unsafe — photos show the tree branches completely engulfed in the power lines. And the roots of the tree had previously lifted the driveway up into jacked peaks, damaging the bottom of the cars, the family said. They wanted to pave a new driveway, but first they had to get rid of the nuisance tree.

Maer got out of his car and examined the scene. A piece of a branch had so engulfed the powerline that even with the tree now gone, a nub clung to the line. He was horrified by what had been done to the tree, and thought the dangling remnant of a branch posed a safety hazard. Maer began “shooing people away” from the sidewalk, he said, and then called emergency services. Using his state attorney’s office email, he fired off a note to city commissioners, the police department, the fire department, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and the city’s code enforcement department.

“I didn’t use my email as a state attorney’s office employee, I just used it because it was there,” Maer said. “If you don’t create a paperchain, things kind of disappear in the city of Miami.”

Over a hundred pages of public records detail what followed.

A city code enforcement officer emailed a fellow officer, saying Maer called and “said that someone just cut a 100 year old tree can you please call him and go by.” A few minutes later, the city fire department showed up on the scene. 

“And that’s how we found out,” Camila Ceballos said. 

The incident report from the fire department showed that the state attorney’s office was on the scene, describing Maer as wearing “tan pants with pink shirt and a green tie ‘from preppy handbook.’” Firefighters secured the scene and called Florida Power and Light to remove dangling parts of the branch. Even then, a chunk of the tree continued to hang from the powerline.

An hour later, a code inspector emailed to colleagues that he would be issuing the Ceballos family a $500 fine for removing the tree without a permit, and an additional $525 fine for dumping the debris on the public right of way. (The family says it was leaving it out for bulk pickup.) Maer was copied on the email.

It was still just the beginning of a long process that dragged on for nine months and at one point ballooned to the threat of a $24,000 fine or a lien against the family’s property.

Camila Ceballos blamed Maer for kickstarting the entire ordeal.

“It’s like — you’re using your power or your contacts in the city to push this around?” she said. “You’re supposed to be persecuting actual criminals.” 

Maer says he was just being a good neighbor who is burdened with seeing the world as a prosecutor. And so, sometimes being a good neighbor means making calls to the authorities.

“I hate being me, because I see everything,” Maer said. “I have friends that don’t see anything.”

‘THE FINES SHOULD BE ASTRONOMICAL’

The city of Miami passed its tree ordinance in 2004 as part of an effort to “protect, preserve and restore the tree canopy in the city,” according to the original ordinance, by “regulating the removal, relocation and trimming of trees.”

Two years later, Miami-Dade County adopted its Street Tree Master Plan, an effort to cover 30 percent of the county’s acreage with tree canopy by 2020. The benefits of more tree cover includes better air quality, more carbon removed from the atmosphere to combat climate change, and cooler neighborhoods in concrete-heavy urban areas.

A 2016 assessment by Miami-Dade found that of any municipality in the county, Miami has the most space available for planting trees.

In this context, Miami has aggressively been enforcing its tree ordinance to protect the canopy that it already has. The city's hub for tree advocacy, Coconut Grove, is a heavily shaded area known for its laid back, bohemian vibe. With the exception of the historical black West Grove, the area is also a much whiter and wealthier neighborhood than most other parts of the city.

The day of the incident, somebody posted a photo of the dead royal poinciana tree on the Nextdoor.com page for Coconut Grove, the next neighborhood over. The Ceballos family said people started showing up to their Little Havana house, taking photos of the tree and poking around.

Photo posted to the Next Door app in the Coconut Grove neighborhood.
Credit Public records from City of Miami

The most vocal person from this Coconut Grove cohort was a woman called Karla Huffman. In repeated emails to city leaders that began the day after Maer saw the dead tree, she pushed for the maximum penalties for the Ceballos family, sharing photos that had been included in the Nextdoor post. 

“The fines should be astronomical (perhaps even jail time for repeat offenders) so as to discourage anyone from EVER trimming another tree without the proper permitting,” she wrote. “Perhaps this neighborhood is not as conscientious as others with the laws and ordinances that protect these trees and the fines and violations that are on the books for cutting them down.”

Having appealed the fines, the family had a hearing coming up. Maer and Huffman emailed with city officials before the hearing.

“Let me get this right – the homeowner is appealing the ... measly fine?” wrote Huffman. (Maer said that he has “no idea” who Huffman is, and doesn’t want to be associated with her “wild kind of inflammatory statements” nor did he “agree with her tone.” Rather, he said he was on emails just looking for facts in the case. Huffman did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

In response to the emails, city worker Quatisha Oguntoyinbo-Rashad got involved for the first time. Oguntoyinbo-Rashad is the head of the Planning Department office that deals with tree permitting and planting.

Oguntoyinbo-Rashad requested to the City Attorney’s Office that “the fine not be settled or negotiated should ticket … be appealed by the owner.”

Ultimately, the $500 fine for cutting the tree was left in place, and the $525 for leaving the mess in the public right of way was reduced to $325. 

And then, Oguntoyinbo-Rashad informed the family that in addition to those fines, they would have to pay for an after-the-fact tree removal permit, which included replacing the chopped tree with new ones.

“Noncompliance could lead to a per diem lien on the property until compliance is met,” wrote Oguntoyinbo-Rashad in an email to Huffman and city officials. To translate: If the family didn’t comply, a lien could be put on their property. For every day they don’t comply, that lien would increase in size.

Huffman wrote back: “YEAH!!!!!! I’m hoping the property owner misses every one of his deadlines!! Sorry guys – but these guys get off way toooo easy in my book!!”

The city’s after-the-fact permit included a demand that the family plant 24 trees of 12-foot or higher on the 7,200 square-foot property, or pay a fine of $24,000 -- $1,000 per tree.

In total, that number represented more than the Ceballos family’s annual total income of $20,647, according to tax forms.

‘A HOUSE FOR TARZAN’

The city’s demands brought a sense of panic to the Ceballos family. 

Estimating the cost of each 12-foot tree to be at least $300 each, plus the cost of shipping, Camila Ceballos wrote to city officials that it would cost the family a minimum of $8,000 to comply with the terms of the contract. And opting to pay the $24,000 fine was out of the question.

The city’s terms were “financially burdensome and impossible,” Ceballos wrote. And in addition to that, there was the question of physical space needed to fit 24 large trees on their small lot.

“We would have to build a house for Tarzan,” mother Ana Gigena said.

The family worried about what would happen to them if they didn’t comply. A potential lien on the property for every day that they didn’t pay could quickly gobble up the value of their home.

“The first thing that I thought is that they were coming for our house,” Ana said. “A part of me still feels that way.”

Ceballos had been working a job at Bacardi and was thinking about leaving to do something else, but when she saw the stakes were this high, she decided to quit and work on the case to save the family home. She has a power of attorney for her father Horacio, and has been the most involved in the case on behalf of the family.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever had to deal with permits, but there’s a reason why development companies need runners,” Ceballos said. “You spend your whole day in that City Hall trying to get an answer to that one question — it can be a yes or no question. What we needed, I spent months on it.”

“It caused a lot of stress, because I didn’t know the law, I don’t have any law background, so there were many nights that I would just be researching,” she said.

Camila Ceballos with a stack of files on her family's case.
Credit Daniel Rivero / WLRN

Ceballos met Miami Commissioner Manolo Reyes at a community meeting late last year. He doesn’t represent the district the Ceballos family lives in, but he had heard similar stories over the years and is a leading voice against the ordinance. 

“We have a lot of horror stories. And we also have some people that they are activists and they go around looking for a chopped tree and then they call the authorities and they found out who did it, and then they come after them like they were criminal,” Reyes said. “There are some people who are fanatics.”

For Reyes, it’s a ground level issue that reflects his broader views on government and the right to private property. “I’m a Jeffersonian,” he said. “I believe that the best government is the one that govern the less.”

In January, Reyes made an effort to repeal the tree ordinance, but the item faced still resistance by activists and it ended up getting shelved.

“Being a country boy, I don’t have anything against trees. People think that I do but I don’t,” said Reyes. “What I’m against is the ordinances that are very very strict, and I would say they are completely oppressive to people.”

The bulk of the activism against his proposal to scrap the ordinance came from tree activists in Coconut Grove. As Reyes tells it, the question of the tree ordinance largely breaks down along geographical and class lines: wealthy, and whiter, people from Coconut Grove push the local government to keep or even strengthen the ordinance. And poorer, more Latino people from other parts of the city feel the brunt of that ordinance.

“Well-to-do neighborhoods, they have more time on their hands and they become more selective and more demanding and all of that,” Reyes said. “Poor neighborhoods, they work more. They have longer hours. And it’s not that they don’t like trees, you go around poor areas around here you’re gonna see mangoes, avocadoes — all kind of fruit trees, mostly. And they will keep them. But they understand that if it is in the way and they have to build another room or something, it is their right to chop it down.”

“Activism is very much with the well-to-do people,” he said.

Part of the issue at play is that different players are playing by one set of rules, and sometimes those rules have unintended consequences.

The difference between these “warring factions on the tree ordinance” has to do with the split between people trying to protect against aggressive developers and people who own their own homes, said Ken Russell, the District 2 commissioner. He is running for reelection on the platform of protecting Coconut Grove’s tree canopy.

Two years ago, Russell led a successful push to strengthen the teeth of the ordinance.

“We really crank up the rules to really protect against speculative development, which moves very quickly in potentially wiping out canopy,” Russell said. “That may have a negative consequence that’s unconsidered when it comes to the regular property owner that just wants to trim their tree and makes a mistake and violates the ordinance.”

The prospect of “little neighbor who cuts their tree and suddenly gets a $20,000 fine” could sound excessive, Russell said. But there’s a certain logic to it: “The flipside of that is, those fines not being big enough have made tree removal just a cost of business for speculative development.”

If protecting the city’s canopy is the goal of the tree ordinance, it’s unclear how successful the effort has been. Fines that are paid to the city for cutting down trees are paid into the Tree Trust Fund. City code specifies at least 80 percent of the money collected by the fund must be spent planting new trees.

Between 2015 and 2018, the Tree Trust Fund generated over $3.8 million in fines from properties across the city, according to public records. Yet expense reports show only $821,771 was spent on anything at all, over the same time period. The majority of the money collected by the Tree Trust Fund is unaccounted for in expense reports.

Even among the trees purchased with money from the fund, many are questionable.

In 2016, fund money was used to buy a $750 mango tree, a $750 avocado tree, and an $850 mamey tree, according to expense records. All were three-gallon trees that each retail for about $30. That same year, the fund was used to buy a $166 box of eight crayons. Money from the fund is routinely used to buy clothing for city employees and to send Oguntoyinbo-Rashad and other Planning Department officials to conferences.

Miami city administrators, including Oguntoyinbo-Rashad, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Commissioner Reyes said that the Tree Trust Fund desperately needs an audit.

“We’re going to be looking into it and we’re going to try to reform it by legislation,” said Reyes. “We’re here to serve people, not to oppress them.”

A DEAL AT LAST

A few months after getting the ultimatum from the city, the Ceballos family was still trying to figure out how to get out from under the burden of a potential $24,000 fine or a lien on their property.

The family repeatedly asked city code enforcement to let them plant a total of seven smaller, cheaper trees to make up for the one they had cut. They asked for permission to plant three crape myrtle trees, three areca palm trees, and one meyer lemon tree. The city wouldn’t budge, emails show.

After months of back and forth, the Ceballos family finally heard back from the city about their pleas for leniency. Camila Ceballos said she approached Miami City Manager Emilio Gonzalez about speaking about their case in front of the whole city commission, and he got personally involved.

“Having this case come before commissioners doesn’t look good for the city manager. So as soon as he reads that you’re requesting to appear, he’s going to want to solve it himself,” Ceballos said.

Gonzalez’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The family was given permission to plant the seven trees. Nine months after the episode started, the nightmare was finally over.

Ceballos thanked Reyes, along with her district Commissioner Joe Carollo, for helping her navigate the process. But it wasn’t easy.

“I feel like the city lives in a world that is not really the reality of the residents of Miami,” Ceballos said. 

“I never thought I would see this and have to go through this in this country,” said Ceballos’ mother, Ana. “It's like your property rights don't exist anymore.”

The Florida legislature passed a law known as the Private Property Rights Protection Act earlier this year, which was meant to prevent local governments like the City of Miami from enforcing overly zealous tree ordinances. The law only requires that a property owner get a written report from a certified arborist or landscape architect saying that a tree is dangerous before residents do any cutting or trimming, bypassing the local permitting process for certain trees. The City of Miami has indicated it will continue to enforce its tree ordinance as it is written, despite the new state law.

David Maer, the assistant state attorney whose phone calls and emails started the whole episode for the Ceballos family, conceded that the mandate to plant 24 trees on the property, or a $24,000 fine for cutting the royal poinciana without a permit, sounds excessive. “This doesn’t seem like the punishment fits the crime,” he said.

The city should have just mandated they volunteer at some kind of tree giveaway event or something like that, he suggested.

But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t make the same kind of call or write the same kind of emails again.

“I’m gonna report a tree cut down whether it’s one tree or 24 trees, irrespective of the punishment,” he said.