$11,000 pain for lopping branch

ALBERT Mikhail knows he should not have touched that tree on the nature strip in front of his Othello Street, Blakehurst, house, given Kogarah Council’s protective attitude towards its trees.

But a low hanging branch was a nuisance, scratching parked cars, making it difficult to get in and out of the passenger side, and obstructing vision. And his neighbour encouraged him; so he cut off the offending branch.

When caught, Mr Mikhail fully expected to pay a fine — but he did not expect the banksia branch to cost him $11,000. And he certainly did not expect to be taken to court and treated as if he was a criminal.

‘‘I made a mistake, anybody can make a mistake, but I was treated like I had killed somebody,’’ Mr Mikhail said.

‘‘Why didn’t the council just fine me? It was just a branch — instead it felt like a personal vendetta, like they were telling me they were going to make it hard for me. I was given no options.’’

Mr Mikhail, 64 and with a heart condition, is especially angry at the way he was caught.

‘‘On the day I got caught a council staff member was seeing a neighbour about a skip,’’ he said.

‘‘He saw me and took a video of me cutting the branch. Why didn’t he stop me?’’

Mr Mikhail is angry that he had not done something about the tree back in 2004.

‘‘At that time there was a problem with the sewer and the council sent a plumber who said the tree was causing problems with the pipes and should be cut down,’’ Mr Mikhail said. But nothing was done.

Mr Mikhail’s banksia branch matter was heard at Kogarah Local Court on March 4. The fine, plus council’s costs and his own solicitor’s, added up to $11,000.

‘‘I want to expose what happened to me — the big harm that was done to me when the council could have fixed the matter themselves,’’ he said.

A Kogarah Council spokeswoman said that a resident of Othello Street, Blakehurst, was ordered to pay $3750 in fines plus council’s legal costs of $4900 after pleading guilty to unlawfully lopping a street tree over 3.5 metres high without council consent. 

His fine was reduced from $5000 by an early guilty plea.

She said that since August 2012, cases of unlawful tree removal within the Kogarah district in the local court had attracted fines of more than $105,000. Individual penalties could be as high as $110,000 for an offence in the Local Court, and $1.1 million in the Land and Environment Court.

‘‘Trees provide many environmental, functional, cultural, health and aesthetic benefits,’’ she said.

‘‘They have a positive impact on the quality of water and air, can counteract the global ‘greenhouse effect’ and they can significantly reduce stormwater runoff.

‘‘Not only does removing or pruning healthy trees from the local environment upset the balance of the natural ecosystem, it also can cause stress for our local community.

‘‘Considering the serious nature of the offence given that it involved destruction of a street tree on council land, the matter was referred to the local court. 

‘‘Council believes strongly in preserving our highly valued urban tree canopy as a major element in our local environment.

‘‘The fine, including council’s legal costs, is payable to the NSW State Debt Recovery Office, and procedures regarding payment are handled by that organisation.’’

 Is Albert Mikhail’s fine too steep?

More common sense wanted: Albert Mikhail and the missing branch that cost him $11,000.  Picture John Veage

More common sense wanted: Albert Mikhail and the missing branch that cost him $11,000. Picture John Veage

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