PINE KNOLL SHORES — Town officials fined two homeowners $10,000 for an environmental protection ordinance violation.
The board of commissioners met for a special meeting Wednesday at the town hall boardroom at 100 Municipal Circle to hear an appeal by Chet and Rhonda Osterhoudt of a notice of violation.
The Osterhoudts had been fined $10,000, the maximum amount allowed by state law, April 23 for removing of vegetation from the frontal dune on their adjacent oceanfront lots at 589 and 591 Forest Dunes Drive and performing other land-disturbance activities without a permit.
After hearing testimony from the Osterhoudts, other residents, a drone photography business owner and town officials, the board deliberated and unanimously affirmed Town Manager Brian Kramer’s decision to fine the Osterhoudts $10,000.
Commissioner Clark Edwards recused himself before the proceedings began, citing prior knowledge of the incident.
Commissioner Bill Knecht also disclosed he’s chairman of the Beacons Reach Homeowners’ Association, which regulates in the development the homes are located in. Attorney Richard Stanley, who was at the meeting as special legal counsel for the board, said Mr. Knecht didn’t need to recuse himself.
After the meeting, the Osterhoudts seemed displeased with the board’s decision.
“I feel like we were ganged up on,” Mr. Osterhoudt said. “It’s been one thing after another since we moved here. Ten thousand dollars is excessive (for a fine).”
Ms. Osterhoudt said they’d asked the board to hold Stella Construction Company, the landscaper they’d hired, accountable for failing to get the necessary permit. News-Times staff attempted to contact the company, but no one was available before presstime.
Mr. Osterhoudt also said they intend to keep disputing the fine. According to Town Attorney Neil Whitford, if they wish to pursue the matter further, the appeal would need to go to civil court.
According to Mr. Whitford’s opening statement during the meeting, the violation which resulted in the $10,000 fine is related to an earlier ordinance violation. In April 2018, Town Planner Kevin Reed received a report of unpermitted tree removal at the Osterhoudt’s property. The Osterhoudts had removed a dozen trees from the oceanfront area of the property, which included the dune oceanward of their house.
The Osterhoudts were fined $1,200 for the initial violation.
Later, in February of this year, Mr. Reed received a report of additional land disturbance at the Osterhoudts.
Mr. Reed, who was at the meeting, said he went out and found the stumps of the previously removed trees had also been removed, as well as additional vegetation from the frontal dune. Grading had also occurred and a gravel driveway had been put down oceanward of the house.
Residents Jessie and Trish Randall were called on at this week’s meeting by Mr. Whitford as witnesses. Mr. Randall said they were in the area in February, walking in the neighborhood of the Osterhoudts’ property, when they saw Mr. Osterhoudt on a tractor performing what seemed to be grading to the dune on his property.
“I was shocked,” Mr. Randall said, “I didn’t know the trees had been removed the year before. That’s when I called the town manager.”
Ms. Randall said she spoke to Mr. Osterhoudt, who she alleges told her he was preparing to put in a pool. The Osterhoudts have been seeking to install a pool at their property, but they said they’ve been having difficulty getting a permit.
The Randalls also contacted Crystal Coast Aerials owner Harold O’Brian, suggesting he take pictures of the property via his aerial photography drones. Mr. O’Brian was also at the meeting as a witness and confirmed he’d taken pictures of the lot after the Randalls spoke with him.
“I sent this picture to Brian (Kramer),” Mr. O’Brian said, pointing to the picture being displayed on the meeting room’s monitors at the time, “and said ‘surely this can’t be legal in Pine Knoll Shores.’”
Mr. Kramer said he chose the largest possible fine because the incident was “the most significant degradation of an oceanfront dune” he’s seen in his 12 years as Pine Knoll Shores manager and because this was the Osterhoudts’ second violation of a town environmental protection ordinance.
The Osterhoudts stressed they hadn’t intentionally violated the ordinance, either the first time in April 2018 or the second time this February. They said they’re primary residence is in Rocky Mount, which they said doesn’t have such strict land disturbance ordinances.
“Back home in the country, we just clean up vegetation,” Mr. Osterhoudt said, “we don’t think to get permits. We paid our penalty last year and agreed to plant 12 trees to replace the ones cut. We cleared the stumps and things so we could have a lawn; the driveway was also messed up, so I hired a local contractor. I thought if there were any permits needed, he’d get them.”
Mr. Osterhoudt said when he received his first fine, he was told he couldn’t cut trees without a permit, but nothing had been said about other kinds of landscaping work.
Ms. Osterhoudt said they thought they were “doing the right thing” by planting grasses to prevent erosion.
“We weren’t intentionally trying to break any ordinances,” she said. “We had a local landscaper and assumed he’d know what was needed to put anything there.”
Commissioner Larry Corsello seemed to understand, but still voted to affirm the fine.
“You were trying to make it pretty for a lawn,” he said to the Osterhoudts, “but you’re not allowed to disturb the dunes (even by planting grass).”
Commissioner Bill Knecht said he could sympathize with the Osterhoudts about the amount of the fine.
“But you were fined before,” he said, “and it appears you didn’t look at the (town) code to see what you could and couldn’t do.”
Mayor Ken Jones, who didn’t vote when the board took action, said dune and beach preservation has been a big focus of his work as mayor.
“The dunes are there to protect that first line of houses,” he said. “It’s people’s homes (being protected).”
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.