Tom O'Brien, the owner of the Kenwood Shopping Center, apparently didn't know he needed the city's approval to clear trees from neighboring properties he also has acquired as manager of Shamrock Management LLC.

Bill Scalzo, a Duluth architect hired by O'Brien, explained that his client had purchased a couple of homes at 1246 and 1222 W. Arrowhead Road, intending to tear them down in hopes that the properties could one day be incorporated into the adjacent shopping center development.

"And in the process, Tom had a logger come in and remove the trees that were there between 1246 and the shopping center. Essentially those trees, in Tom's mind, were dying and dead trees, and he just thought he was doing the right thing by cleaning up the site," Scalzo said at an online meeting with city planning staff and concerned neighbors Tuesday.

But John Kelley, a city planner, said O'Brien failed to follow proper protocol requiring city staff to sign off on a tree inventory and replacement plan before such work begins for the development of a commercial site.

"In this situation, trees were removed without any real inventory being completed," he said.

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Kelley noted that there are no imminent plans for the site to be developed yet. "It's more just to clean up the site and ready it for potential future development. So, we had to take a couple steps back and say: We need to know what types of trees, what size of trees and where they were that were cut down."

The city enlisted Scalzo's help to work with the logging contractor who cleared the site in a retroactive effort to figure out the scope of the tree removal. Kelley said city forester Clark Christenson then used that data to determine what should be done to replace the trees, in accordance with Duluth's Unified Development Chapter.

While neighbor David McDonald expressed his appreciation for efforts to rectify the unauthorized clearing, he bristled at the characterization of O'Brien's actions, which resulted in the loss of a number of large, substantial trees, as well as the neighborhood's sense of privacy.

"I think clear-cutting is a little bit different than cleaning up dead, dying and diseased trees, and he did the clear-cutting … without any permission from the city," McDonald said.

Adam Fulton, Duluth's deputy director of planning and economic development, responded, saying: "I think there was some confusion about how you go about tree maintenance. And it's different for a residential site versus a commercial site. So, we've done a lot of education in that regard, and that's really been the focus."

McDonald also expressed distrust that O'Brien could be counted upon to follow the terms of his agreement with the city, which has taken months to hammer out.

"You can imagine why we do not feel comfortable with assurances that things are going to be smooth now when, for the last four months, they have not been smooth," he said.

Fulton said, "I recognize that it has taken a little bit of time between the city and the owner and the representatives of the owner to get to this point of having this plan in place. And I apologize about that. You know, sometimes when you're doing something like this, which is a proactive restoration agreement, it can take a bit of time, and it's frustrating, and I acknowledge that."

As part of the agreement, O'Brien will be required to plant new trees on the site and will be allowed to complete some grading work that also will result in the creation of a 4- to 6-foot-tall earthen berm on the eastern edge of the site, to help screen it from its residential neighbors.

Scalzo said the second phase of his client's plan will include removing some unhealthy trees from the south side of the property, behind the shopping center. He said this work will include proper documentation and the development of a restoration plan.

Phase III of the project will involve O'Brien finalizing his acquisition of a third neighboring home at 1218 W. Arrowhead Road to assemble a larger overall parcel "so that a potential developer will look at that and say: 'Well, this would be a good place to be,'" said Scalzo, noting that he was unaware of any would-be developer that has stepped forward yet.

Fulton said he, too, could not predict what the future development of the site might look like.

"We have no knowledge of that, and something like that would require additional city action before anything like that could be approved," he said.

"This agreement and the letter they've provided to us outline the specific phased restoration that has to happen. So, that's not only what's happening today but also recognizing if there's development in the future, that has to take into account all the trees that were removed as part of this maintenance that was done a few months back," Fulton said.