Builder chopped down Seagrove Beach oak trees for construction. Now, his apology falls flat.

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — The builder pursuing of a seven-lot residential project planned for Seagrove Beach apologized Tuesday for cutting down a number of large live oak trees in the beachside community without a required permit.

But an attorney for builder Wylie Hutchinson indicated that his client isn't interested in pursuing the project under the county's "major development" protocol, which would require additional scrutiny, including a vote from the Walton County Board of County Commissioners.

"We have appealed (a ruling from Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter that the project must move forward as a major development), so no," local attorney Gary Shipman said when asked directly if project representatives would consider moving forward under the major development protocol, which among other things would subject the proposal to public comment. 

Local attorney Gary Shipman, representing builder Wylie Hutchinson, addresses the crowd during a meeting Tuesday that included an apology from Hutchinson for cutting down oak trees in Seagrove Beach without a required permit.

Background:'They're like God's bonsai': Seagrove residents mourn live oaks lost to construction

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Those were the major points to emerge from a community meeting held Tuesday evening by Hutchinson, who was joined by others associated with the project, including Shipman, land planner Melissa Ward, who works in the offices of Santa Rosa Beach law firm Dunlap & Shipman, and project architect Frank Greene, along with civil engineer Neill O'Connell and landscape designer Brad Davis.

"We got it wrong up front," Hutchinson, referencing the cutting down of the live oaks in May, told a group of more than three dozen Seagrove Beach residents and other interested people as he kicked off what became a nearly three-hour meeting in which he and the others involved in the project were repeatedly confronted with forceful comments and questions about plans for the tract.

Invoking his own love of dogs and the work of his company, Coastal Custom Home Building, with a local animal refuge, Hutchinson told the crowd, "I realize now that the trees are as passionate (an issue) to you as the dogs are to me."

Later in the meeting, Hutchinson issued a more direct apology, saying, "We are sorry we took the trees out."

Seagrove Beach residents are upset that a number of old growth live oaks were suddenly cut down with little warning in May.

As explained Wednesday, the trees were cut down as a result of a misunderstanding connected with a demolition permit obtained by Hutchinson, which he indicated that he thought included tree removal. Tree removal, however, requires a separate permit from the county, which Hutchinson did not have.

Following Tuesday's meeting, Hutchinson sidestepped a question on whether the proposed development could have proceeded as planned without taking out the trees.

As currently envisioned, the project comprises six two-story houses and one three-story house. Five of the houses will range from 4,000 to 5,000 square feet, with two larger houses on a couple of acres between Headland Avenue and Gardenia Street on the north side of Walton County Road 30A. Under the current plan, five of the houses will have five bedrooms, one will have six bedrooms, and one will have seven bedrooms.

"It's hard to say," Hutchinson said when asked if the proposal could have worked with the oak trees remaining in place. 

Coastal Custom Home Building plans to sell the houses when they are constructed, and Hutchinson was urged Tuesday to consider selling them as owner-occupied residences rather than short-term vacation rentals.

A schematic drawing shows the seven-structure residential development that local builder Wylie Hutchinson is planning for Seagrove Beach. Hutchinson is appealing a decision from Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter that directs the project be considered a major development.

"What we don't want are seven mini-hotel suites," one man in the Tuesday audience told Hutchinson, as a woman in the audience made an even more forceful point about the issue of people jamming into rental houses for their beach vacations.

"Remember this," she said, "30 (people) times seven (houses) is the number of (vacationing) people who are going to be in our neighborhood."

In the immediate aftermath of the trees being cut down, a stop-work order was issued for the project, but in the intervening weeks other preparation for the project has moved forward. That has included appearances in front of the county's Zoning Board of Adjustments, where Hutchison is appealing Carpenter's determination that the project must move forward as a major development.

A worker cuts into a felled live oak tree at a construction site in Seagrove Beach earlier this year. The builder pursuing a seven-lot residential project apologized Tuesday for cutting down a number of large live oak trees on the property, but indicated through an attorney that he isn't interested in pursuing the project under Walton County's "major development" protocol, which would require additional scrutiny.

Carpenter had previously approved the project moving forward as a minor development, requiring only that he sign off on it, and that the proper construction and other permits be obtained. But in a letter to Hutchinson days after the trees were cut down, Carpenter rescinded that approval.

In the letter, Carpenter called the cutting down of the trees an "egregious violation of trust" as he noted the "irreparable loss of neighborhood trees that helped create the character of this neighborhood for many generations of Walton County residents and visitors ... ."

Thus, as was noted at Tuesday's meeting, had the trees not been cut down, attracting the attention of the county and the surrounding neighbors, the project could have proceeded without any input from the public.

Hutchinson is appealing Carpenter's determination that the project must move forward as a major development proposal, partly on grounds that the project is using the footprint of seven lots established in 1952. In paperwork filed with the appeal, Hutchinson also contends that Carpenter's decision violated the constitutional "due process" legal rights of Coastal Custom Home Building, violated county ordinances and was "arbitrary and capricious."

The appeal is scheduled to be heard by the Zoning Board of Adjustments at its Sept. 23 meeting.