Manassas man sentenced to 24 months in jail for environmental destruction of state protected lands; Benjamin Mathai will serve 40/728 days and pay $1,500 in fines.

The case against Benjamin Mathai began in September 2016 when the Northampton Wetlands Board received a tip about environmental destruction on Mathai's property. The property, located at 2281 Old Neck Road in Exmore, Virginia, extends onto a point at the convergence of Occohannock Creek and the Chesapeake Bay. When the Northampthon Wetlands Board visited the property to investigate the tip, they found what the Cape Charles Mirror calls "one of the worst environmental events in recent history." The property owned by Benjamin Mathai had been clear cut from the back of the property to the point on the bay. The removal of trees and soil disturbed and seriously harmed not only tidal wetlands, but also a large piece of land designated by the state as a Resource Protection Area.
Grasses and soil were removed using heavy machinery, and a large bunch of historic, old-growth loblolly pines were felled. American beach grass, salt marsh hay, salt bush, and some phragmities were among the vegetation removed from the property. Felled trees and branches were dragged across sensitive soils using heavy machinery, or left lying on the point to block the growth of delicate and essential vegetation. All of the work was done by Coastal Management, Inc. without a proper permit. The Cape Charles Mirror wrote the following:
After a thorough investigation, it was determined that the property was impacted by unauthorized clearing activity using manual labor, chain saws and moving equipment and created disturbances to all three environmental sensitive regions-tidal wetlands, non-tidal wetlands and the Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Area (CCPA buffer)."
[caption id="attachment_1951" align="alignnone" width="800"]Environmental Destruction An aerial image of the damage at the 2281 Old Neck Road property owned by Benjamin Mathai, courtesy of the Cape Charles Mirror[/caption] In November 2016, after the extent of the damage had been verified, John Wescoat, council for Mr. Mathai and representatives from Coastal Resource, Inc., Mathai’s contracting team, appeared before the Wetlands Board. The board presented evidence of the destruction using aerial and ground photos; the board then granted them permission to remove debris blocking vegetation growth only by hand. Heavy machinery would absolutely not be allowed on the property. The Wetlands Board also implemented a strict restoration plan:
The Wetlands Board has implemented a restoration plan based on an environmental site assessment by J.W. Salm Engineering, which includes replanting native vegetation as well as a 5-year monitoring plan. The restoration plan is for tidal wetlands only. The restoration plan will run with the land, and will be added to the property’s deed in case it is sold prior to the restoration being completed. The owner will provide the financial security necessary to maintain the restoration plan to a satisfactory completion. A civil charge of $7500 was applied for a significant degree of environmental impact and a moderate degree of non-compliance."
The full environmental survey can be viewed and downloaded here.

The estimated cost of the restoration is $150,000. Mathai is fined with one percent of that cost.

When Mathai's attorney questioned whether or not the $7,500 was an appropriate charge for the environmental destruction (of which he said the significance of questionable), Wetlands Board member Bob Meyers responded, “Regarding significant impact, we found destruction that is going to take years to replace. As far as I’m concerned, that is significant.” Just this week, Mathai was back in court. Bruce Jones, who was acting as both County and Commonwealth Attorney in the case, presented evidence provided by Planning Development Inspector Kelly Parks. Parks showed photographic evidence of the property’s current condition as well as before and after photographic documentation. Mathai’s main defense was that he was unaware that the contractor he hired was going to clear cut the three acres of trees up to the edge of the creek; but, Mathai was still found guilty and sentenced to 24 months in jail, with all but 40 days suspended. He also has to pay $1,500 in fines (on top of the $10,000 civil fines he already paid), and also has to restore the damage to the ecosystem.
Mathai must pay for the restoration at his own expense. An administrative meeting has been set to review the restoration plan and progress. The home and property are now listed as for sale on Zillow. There are no photos of the waterfront on the listing; however, the listing does say "the Sun Room offers views of the bay that will not soon be forgotten." What do you think about this story? Should Mathai be punished for his environmental destruction? Who should claim responsibility for the land and its restoration? Let us know in the comments below.

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