By Gregg Bragg, The Island Eye News Staff Writer
Photos provided by the IOP Building Dept.
Isle of Palms City Councilmembers should have been tired after an hour long Ways & Means committee meeting, followed immediately by a two-hour long City Council meeting on Nov.20, but if they were it didn’t show. They went straight into a rare executive session to discuss and vote on a legal matter involving an offer of $54,000 from IOP resident Jonathan Gandolfo for damages.
Gandolfo made an offer to buy 408 Carolina Blvd. in August 2016. The offer was still pending when he decided to chop down two “historic” (e.g. greater that 16 inches in diameter at chest height) Live Oak trees.
Surveyor John Wade, who does a lot of work for the city, showed up to measure the lot, noticed the missing trees, and contacted IOP authorities. Gandolfo’s bid on the lot fell as flat as the trees, but that didn’t stop the city from following through. Two years of debate brought council to this point.
The choices were to accept the offer of damages and be done with the affair, or reject the offer and send Gandolfo to court and face fines, and the specter of jail time. Particularly damning were attempts by Gandolfo to obfuscate the crime, according to an IOP PD incident report.
Council seemed resolute, if still divided. Councilmembers Bell and Rice argued emphatically against the settlement, intent on sending a clear message this sort of behavior would not be tolerated. Councilmembers Smith and Kinghorn seemed to agree, but said they wanted to be cautious about sullying the property owner’s reputation.
The entire process took about three minutes, and the offer was rejected by a 5-4 margin. Councilmembers Buckhannon, Rice, Ward, Kinghorn, and Bell voted against Gandolfo’s settlement offer. Mayor Carroll and Councilmembers Ferencz, Moye, and Smith voted to accept the offer.
“Isle of Palms takes its trees seriously. Some on Council didn’t want it [court] to happen, including some difference of opinion on how to get there, but justice prevailed and council is sending a message to everyone; you don’t cut trees,” said Mayor Jimmy Carroll. “The City rejected [his offer]. Some people, and I was one of the people, were afraid to go to court and lose everything. I was concerned he was going to get a lawyer, and find a way out of this scot-free.”
Asked about whether IOP would pursue civil damages, Carroll said, “it isn’t over yet.”
Carroll’s comments were made after Gandolfo’s Dec. 11 court date. The defendant was found guilty, and sentenced to jail and fined. “He was sentenced to 30 days in jail with a service of one [day], and he was taken from the courtroom directly to jail. He still has to serve a couple weekends and some time on probation,” Carroll told Island Eye News.
The actual sentence was 30 days in jail and $1,087 fine for each tree. The decision was reached by a jury composed entirely of IOP residents who deliberated for 2 hours following the two-day trial. Although much of the jail time was suspended, Gandolfo has spent several days behind bars this month, and has a couple more days in lockup on his calendar for next year, plus community service.
There was a limit to what Gandolfo could say when contacted for comment, given the prospect of civil suits and IOP’s possible attempt to get damages. The actual comments he shared were off the record, but he sounded contrite and anxious to have all of this in the rear-view mirror. He said he would have his attorney call with an official comment on the case, but as of this writing Gandolfo’s attorney had not submitted a comment.
Speculation by sources who asked not to be named, suggest the court felt compelled to include jail time.
Otherwise, people who think their lot has more value, less all the nature, would simply cut the trees and pay the relatively minor fines. However, there’s catch with that angle, too.
The official plats on record with the city have a mock-up of every lot. Circles note the location of trees and remain on the plat even after the tree is gone. Consequently, it’s not possible to build over the spot regardless of the tree’s physical presence. Property owners may chafe at being told what they can or cannot do with their property, but permission is better than forgiveness in this case.