By John Schaffner

Hundreds of Brookhaven residents reportedly have vented their anger in emails and phone calls and DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader is exploring criminal vandalism charges related to the illegal cutting down of 14-17 specimen oak trees in the county right-of-way in front of the Brookhaven Park Village commercial building at 1441 Dresden Drive.

Rajen Sheth, managing director of Pinnacle Real Estate Partners that owns the building, has admitted in two documents to ignoring being told by the county’s arborist on three occasions—when he requested permits to cut the trees—that his company was “not allowed to remove any trees.” He went ahead and had the trees cut down at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, June 7.

In an open letter to his tenants and the Brookhaven community, Sheth said he took the action primarily because the trees hid the building and its tenant businesses from passing traffic, making it more difficult to obtain and retain tenants. He also claimed they were growing into the power lines above and their roots were cracking the sidewalk.

Sheth wrote: “These problems coupled with the fact that Brookhaven Park Village is now only at 50 percent economic occupancy forced us to make a difficult and painful decision—that it was better to take down the trees and pay the fines and deal with the frustrations at one time.”

Griff Sims, senior vice president of CITY Commercial Real Estate, was on his way to the inaugural Sunday brunch at Haven restaurant June 7 when he noticed half the trees were missing and heard the chain saw halfway down the building. (Haven is at the northern end of the commercial building.)

Sims said he was told that Sheth told one of the tenants that he had considered removing just some of the trees, but changed his mind. “It was either all or nothing,” he reportedly told the tenant. “We took them all figuring we were going to get fined anyway.”

According to Brookhaven civic leaders and Commissioner Rader, fines might be the least of Sheth’s worries. He may be forced to replant the trees and may face criminal charges for each of the trees removed, because they were on county property, not private property.

“Everybody is sore at him (Sheth),” Rader said. “I compare this to going by and busting out windows in a county building,” he added, explaining why he is exploring criminal vandalism charges.

The oak trees were required to be planted along the county right-of-way as part of zoning approval by the county for the building to be constructed right up to that right-of-way in 2003. The commercial project was built by Dan Woodley, who also built the Village Place mixed-use development across the street on Dresden Drive. The Park Village commercial building was purchased in 2005 by Pinnacle Real Estate.

According to Sims, who has dealt with Park Village for years representing tenants and prospects, “that building was not built, designed or intended to be a retail strip center.” Therefore, he doesn’t buy Sheth’s argument that the reason his building is only 50 percent occupied is because the trees hide the ground-floor retail area.

Sims points to a photo taken prior the trees being cut down and explains that the trees were trimmed above the first-floor level. He said the second story is loft office space for destination-type businesses which don’t rely on street signage. Sims said the second floor is virtually empty.

He also points out that the one retail tenant that Sheth says broke its lease and moved across the street to the newer Village Place development, had always planned to be in Village Place and only was in Park Village until Village Place was ready for occupancy.

Ronnie Mayer, who many refer to as the mayor of Brookhaven and who spends much of his free time buying and planting trees in the community’s public spaces, was so angry about the cutting of the trees he went and measured each stump left in the ground and recorded the tree size in order to try and get Pinnacle to replace the trees cut with the same 10-inch diameter trees.

Mayer already has received cost estimates for replacing the trees—one estimate for the delivery of 17 Pin Oaks with 10-inch diameters, and a second for removing the old stumps and replanting the new trees.

The estimated cost of the trees was $27,927 and the cost of removing stumps and planting the trees was $29,664.

Mayer said if Pinnacle refuses to pay to replant the trees, the county ought to fine the company $100,000 and then it can pay to replant the trees. “Either way, we want those trees back in the ground there and we don’t want any spindley 2- to 3-inch diameter trees,” Mayer said. “We want 10-inch diameter trees like the ones that owner had illegally cut down.”

As an aside, Mayer said he was told the person that owns the hair salon in Park Village has had to spend $8,000 on a new air-conditioning unit since the trees were cut down, because the sun now beats down on his retail space.

“Nobody is happy about what happened here with the tree cutting and this man needs to really pay for what he did,” Mayer added.