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KEYSTONE — Melissa Nordbeck drives daily from her home on Hammock Woods Drive to where she boards her horses off McGlamery Road. It’s a trek that takes her past land owned by national homebuilder Taylor Morrison that is targeted for a 194-home neighborhood.

She noticed the heavy construction equipment parked there in late February. Later, she observed the vehicles moving and piles of dead trees emerging.

“My first thought was, ‘How is this allowed?’” said Nordbeck, 52. “You see those trees being cut and you see those large piles, you’re just wondering — how is this legal?”

Turns out, it wasn’t.

Hillsborough County ordered Taylor Morrison to stop the work April 26, saying the land clearing and tree cutting were done without a permit. The county ordered the company to devise a plan to replant or pay a fine of nearly $310,000.

Related: In rural Hillsborough a development fought shrouded in history

The tree cutting caused additional heartburn among residents already piqued that the Taylor Morrison project, on more than 200 acres between Patterson and McGlamery roads, circumvented the rural protections in the Keystone/Odessa area. The community overlay district calls for one home per five acres, but Taylor Morrison is building nearly one home per gross acre because the country’s rezoning dates to 1991, a decade before adoption of the rural safeguards.

Hillsborough County issued a stop-work order for site development work at land off Patterson Road in the Keystone area of ​​northwest Hillsborough. The land is planned to be the site of 194 homes by Taylor Morrison. [ Hillsborough County ]

A county inspector calculated crews improperly cut down 4.766 inches of trees as measured by DBH, or diameter at breast height. That’s the width of the tree trunk measured approximately 4.5 feet from the ground.

The combined diameter of the destroyed trees totaled 132 yards, or enough to cover the football field at Raymond James Stadium, including the end zones, and still have 12 yards left over.

Last week passersby on Patterson Road could view piles of dead trees on a former cattle pasture that now includes an open plain of fill dirt. Idle earth movers sat nearby. Some oak trees, surrounded by red construction fencing, remained standing.

Piles of dead trees are visible from Patterson Road on land owned by Taylor Morrison in Keystone.
Piles of dead trees are visible from Patterson Road on land owned by Taylor Morrison in Keystone. [ Melissa Nordbeck ]

A stop-work order is rare in tree-cutting cases, occurring only about 10 percent of the time, the county said. The $309,790 fine facing Taylor Morrison — calculated at $65 per inch — “is larger than what it is for the average violation we encounter,” according to the county Development Services Department.

In a statement, Taylor Morrison said the county’s natural resources department had reviewed and approved its permit plans, but the work began before the county issued the final construction permit. It said it cleared no trees beyond the permitted limit. The county issued final approval of the permit Thursday.

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“We regret the timing error on the site work and we are working with the applicable county authorities to ensure we timely address the matter,” the company said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

Nordbeck, who blew the whistle on the tree clearing, said residents’ vigilance will continue.

“We want them to know every single thing you’re doing we’re going to be watching because … we’re just doing the best we can to hold on to our way of life,” she said.

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