By John Schaffner
The problems are far from over for the owner of the commercial property at 1441 Dresden Drive, who illegally chopped down 18 specimen oak trees June 7 that were in the county right-of-way in front of his building. In fact, the case may be on its way to court.
Dist. 2 DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader said Aug. 31 that he was going to pursue legal proceedings against Rajen Sheth, managing director of Pinnacle Real Estate Partners which owns the Brookhaven Park Village commercial building, seeking a criminal citation for destruction of county property.
“I will be the complainant if necessary,” Rader said, explaining that he had learned Aug. 29 from the county’s director or transportation that the citation seemed to be the only route available to seeing that the situation is corrected and trees are returned to the site.
Rader said discussions of what to do about the matter had gone all the way to the office of county CEO Burrell Ellis “and the CEO understands that we have to do something that sends a message that we will not tolerate destruction of trees or any other county property in this manner.”
After hundreds of Brookhaven residents reportedly vented their anger in emails and phone calls in June about the cutting down of the trees that lined Dresden Drive, Rader announced he was exploring criminal vandalism charges.
“Those were actually county property because they were in the right of way,” Rader said. “We are now working on sanctions and a community process to determine exactly what we want put back there. We are considering a range from put it back exactly the way we had it, or the community can choose some different options.”
At the July 14 meeting of the Brookhaven Community Connection, Rader said the county was working on sanctions and a process to determine the best interests for the community in replacing the cut-down trees.
At the time, Rader said the county was going to get a landscape designer from one of its firms under annual contract to develop some options. “We will have community meetings and then we are going to require the owner that was responsible for this action to make good on it,” Rader said. “It is regrettable, but it is imperative that the county recover from this in a manner that is best for the community.”
However, Rader said he learned on Aug. 29 the legal citation for criminal charges might be the only recourse available to get the situation corrected. The county’s code enforcement officer has no jurisdiction because the trees were on county land, not private property.
“This demonstrates a weakness in the code of ordinances if we don’t have a means of dealing with something like this,” Rader stated, suggesting a review of the tree ordinance may be in order.
“I want the results to be proper corrective measures, but not overly punitive,” he said. “We want to give the perpetrator the opportunity to set it right.” He said it might be possible to negotiate a few options with the property owner which the county would then present to the community for its approval.
“Ideally we could go before a judge in the case with an option worked out and demonstrate sincere efforts for restitution,” Rader added.
He said one option might involve replanting a portion of the 18 trees on the county right-of-way in front of the building and possibly the rest could be used to improve parkland elsewhere in the community, such as at Clack’s Corner.
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.
Sheth 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.”