View from TRPA isn’t too pretty: Heated debate, no resolution from board on fine for man who allegedly poisoned trees
The governors of Tahoe’s planning agency were outraged Wednesday over a man who allegedly poisoned trees to improve his home’s view of Lake Tahoe, calling him morally reprehensible.
John R. Fitzhenry was not present at the meeting, but his lawyer Drew Briner told the board his client was “extremely sorry for his lack of judgment in this matter” and has been cooperating fully with Tahoe Regional Planning Agency staff to resolve the issue.
Fitzhenry, who is vice president of human relations for Altera Corp., a maker of programmable computer chips in San Jose, declined comment and promptly hung up when contacted by the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
The agency’s governing board could not reach a conclusion on whether to approve the settlement agreement after 45 minutes of debate Wednesday. The board did not vote on a motion, but it appeared the item will be sent back to the legal committee for further review.
Fitzhenry allegedly admitted to drilling holes in the base of three large Jeffrey pines and applying the herbicide Roundup Ready to kill them. He purchased his home on Dollar Point for $2.4 million in 2004. Agency staff believe he immediately began poisoning the trees. The violation was discovered when he called TRPA for a tree removal permit last summer.
The agency’s legal committee agreed last month to a $17,000 fine to settle the infraction, plus a $5,000 security deposit for restoring the trees. The fine breaks down to $5,000 per tree and $2,000 for limbs that were allegedly removed from the top of another tree.
Some board members suggested doubling the fine amount. Others said the fine should be equivalent to any increased value to the property. Board member Shelly Aldean said just doubling the fine amount could also be detrimental.
“We have been criticized for being too lenient,” she said, “but we have been criticized for being too arbitrary.”
Not one board member said the $17,000 fine was sufficient. Several board members suggested the agency explore other deterrence strategies.
Jan Brisco of the Tahoe Lakefront Homeowners Association told the board they are missing the boat: for some, money will never be a deterrent. She suggested the board focus more on educating new property owners in the Lake Tahoe Basin on the unique regulations here.
Michael Donahoe also suggested that the problem is deeper than money. He told the Tahoe Daily Tribune not enough is being done to create a lake-wide ethic of responsibility.
Tree poisoning has happened before, but Jerome Waldie said in 12 years he has been on the board, he had not heard of a tree poisoning case.
“(Fitzhenry’s) attorney says he’s very remorseful, he ought to be at a minimum remorseful,” Waldie said, “but what he really ought to do is pay a substantial financial penalty because of this inexcusable action.”
TRPA’s assistant lawyer Jordan Kahn said the agency’s bi-state compact allows for $5,000 per day per violation, which in this case could add up to millions of dollars. But Kahn emphasized that the board approves settlement agreements to avoid litigation. And he warned that if the case went to litigation, it would be uncertain how much of a fine a judge would agree to.
Board members Stuart Yount, Steven Merrill, Larry Sevison, Julie Motamedi, Jim Galloway and Norma Santiago continued to express their concern.
“We have to be clear and strong in terms of our commitment to the compact,” Santiago said. “The penalty should match the crime.”
Fitzhenry has never appeared before the board. Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller said he would not vote for any resolution until the man expressed his remorse in person and explained to the board why he did what he did.
In other business:
— The board approved a 6,000-square-foot new commercial building on Incline Way in Incline Village.
— the board approved a change to the IPES scoring map in Placer County.
— TRPA staff gave informational presentations on the Pathway 2007 planning process. The board will see suggested changes to environmental standards in the basin next month. However, the standards will not change until the agency conducts environmental review, so the process will not be complete and receive a final vote until 2008.
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