Getting to the roots of a Davis Islands tree dispute

Couple spends thousands fighting city, builder

click to enlarge SEWER PIPE: Shein's photo shows a sewer clean-out pipe rising from within tree protection barriers. The builder says this didn't harm the tree. - Courtesy Of Leigh Shein
Courtesy Of Leigh Shein
SEWER PIPE: Shein's photo shows a sewer clean-out pipe rising from within tree protection barriers. The builder says this didn't harm the tree.

Leigh Shein and his wife, Betsy D'Jamoos, went through an elaborate process to choose a new city in which to live after finishing up stints in the Clinton administration. Finally, after a scientific evaluation in 2000-01, they decided to move either to Tampa or Austin, Texas. Tampa won.

Six years later, they may be thinking they made the wrong choice.

Shein and D'Jamoos have spent most of the past year — and untold thousands of dollars in legal fees — fighting Tampa City Hall and luxury homebuilder Donald C. Hughes. The well-known builder, who constructs only a few multimillion-dollar homes at a time, stands accused of fatally damaging two trees on their property line in the course of erecting a $2.4 million mansion on Davis Islands.

"When we started, it was inconceivable that this much time and expense would have to be spent on such a simple thing," Shein said in an e-mail from a second home the couple have bought in Southwest Florida. "This is our home. Destroying these trees was unnecessary and irresponsible."

What's worse, according to Shein's reading of public records, is that it appears the damage could have been halted and the trees saved if Tampa government had moved faster.

Hughes, for his part, said he followed the city's directions to protect the trees and insists he didn't damage the aging laurel oak.

Hughes started building the new home on Caspian Way after getting city approval in late 2005 for the two-story structure, which features oak and marble floors, granite bathroom vanities, a second-floor home theater, and tongue-and-grooved stained cedar doors on the three-car garage, according to a sales pitch on his website.

Shein said his arborist first noticed the damage starting in the spring of 2006. Shein and D'Jamoos say they spoke with Hughes, but he told them that it was up to city building officials how much protection the trees needed.

Shein called City Hall in early June, starting a process in which he was bounced from one department and city employee to another. He says it took a few weeks to get an inspector on the site, in late June, and then the matter was shifted from the Construction Services Division to the city's parks department, which makes determinations on tree issues.

A parks department naturalist inspected the site in July 2006 and wrote that two trees on the site had been damaged: a raintree toward the back of the property, its "major tension root ... destroyed" by new fencing, and a larger oak, whose roots were "now severely compacted."

Even though inspectors visited the site and seemed to agree with Shein and D'Jamoos about the damage, the couple says city workers seemed unwilling or unable to halt the project.

They offer as evidence an e-mail from one city parks official, Kathy Beck, to a construction inspections supervisor.

"After several months of attempting to preserve and halt construction damage for referenced project, we are now in a situation where a majority of structural roots have been severed for what now appears to be a sewer line (cleanout near base of tree)," Beck wrote in an Aug. 1, 2006, e-mail to the city's chief construction inspector. "It is our opinion, and the opinion of [Shein's] arborist that the tree has been compromised to the point of effective removal and now poses a hazard."

The senior manager of Tampa's Construction Services Division, John Barrios, said it is clear that construction did some damage to the trees roots. The dispute, however, is to what extent.

"This is by no means an exact science," Barrios said of both the act of protecting trees on construction sites and assessing possible damage afterward. "Every tree is not identical."

Barrios said the city acted appropriately, citing Hughes for the damage and referring the case to the Code Enforcement Board when the builder challenged the city's assessment — albeit in mid-August, two and a half months after the first complaint.

As for Beck's frustration, Barrios said inspectors later determined the sewer line did not cut across the trees roots. He defended his department's actions, saying inspectors can't be watching every site 24/7.

"We are not on that jobsite every day," Barrios said. Protecting trees "is clearly the builder's responsibility. "

By September 2006, dissatisfied with the city's response, Shein hired a lawyer and met with city building and legal officials in a session he describes as contentious.

A nine-month fight with City Hall is not the kind of thing Shein and D'Jamoos expected when they moved to the quiet Davis Islands neighborhood. A St. Petersburg Times story detailed the lengths to which they went to choose a city in which to put down (no pun intended) roots. The couple had lived in Washington, D.C., London, L.A., Boston and Chicago by the time they were in their early 40s. With a child on the way, they wanted to settle down and chose Tampa based on demographics from Claritas and rankings from the Places Rated Almanac.

Shein and D'Jamoos are not novices in dealing with government. Shein was the chief of staff for the Department of Personnel Management, which is the federal government's human resources arm. D'Jamoos was a deputy assistant secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, in its management and budget division.

"This episode has left us very dissatisfied with city officials," Shein wrote to Creative Loafing. "This situation could have easily been prevented by the city's Department of Construction Services."

The matter is headed to a hearing in front of the city's Code Enforcement Board at the end of this month, where Hughes could be fined up to $5,000 and be ordered to replace the trees if he is found guilty.

"If I was found responsible for damage, I would be shocked," Hughes said. "I have dealt with trees for years and years and years. Obviously, Leigh Shein didn't do anything to hurt the tree. But I'm being made a scapegoat. This is just an old tree," with many cavities, and Hughes believes it doesn't have many more years to live anyway.

Shein and D'Jamoos now live part of the time in Southwest Florida, where D'Jamoos, ironically, is developing large residential and commercial projects. In the final twist, Shein said he was told by a city attorney that if Hughes is not found responsible by the Code Enforcement Board, he and his wife will have to pay to take down the trees.