The city of Columbia has quietly paid $224,400 in taxpayer money in a court settlement after workers cut down a trove of mature trees and shrubs without notifying the homeowner, documents show.
The property involves a two-story house at 4015 Lamar St. off North Main Street in the vicinity of Hyatt Park owned by longtime resident Lyman Munson. The home “dates back to the 1800s and is one of the City of Columbia’s oldest homes,” according to a lawsuit he filed last year.
Munson’s suit contends that “a shocking number of mature trees and shrubs,” as well as dozens of heirloom plants were clear-cut from his property in North Columbia.
The lawn had “a plum tree, a crab apple tree, an 80-year-old Sansanqua bush, eight azalea bushes surrounding the towering live oak,” the suit states. The yard also had many large ornamental camellias and old wisteria vines.
“Replacement of these large and nearly historic trees and shrubs are either impracticable or impossible,” Munson said in the suit. The plants on the nearly 1-acre lot also served as a buffer from commercial properties across the street.
The city contends Munson was in violation of a “weeds and debris” municipal law. Workers acted legally in clearing the area, Columbia officials said.
A settlement of the suit, which came in June, prohibits any of the parties from discussing the deal. City officials on Thursday declined to say why they agreed to pay $115,000 to Munson, owner of a precision parts company, and $109,400 to private attorneys hired by the city to help defend against the suit.
Neither party admitted wrongdoing.
“I decline comment,” said Munson, who also was charged under criminal law. If he discusses the settlement, the city can force Munson to give back the $115,000.
But public court records obtained by The State newspaper make clear why the city paid the money and didn’t object to a settlement that forces everyone to keep the matter quiet. By not discussing the case, the city avoids a potentially embarrassing public discussion about why it sent workers onto private property.
In his legal action, Munson said the city destroyed his shrubs and flowers without giving him any notice. The city denied that.
Munson also argued the city’s weeds and debris law applies only to overgrown vegetation, and excludes trees and shrubs.
At the time of the cutting, in March 2015, Munson complained to the police that code enforcers had trespassed onto his property and damaged it. But police would not file the trespassing charges he wanted, Munson said in the suit.
After he complained to police, the city filed a criminal misdemeanor complaint against Munson under the debris law.
Munson then hired attorneys Biff Sowell and Beth Richardson, of the Columbia law firm Sowell Gray, who filed suit in federal court. Late last spring, before the case went to trial, the two sides agreed to a settlement that included the secrecy conditions.
The $115,000 for Munson wasn’t the only taxpayer money the city spent on the case.
City Hall also paid more than $109,433 to two private Columbia firms which helped the city fight its case, according to city records. The city paid $42,282 to attorneys Danny Crowe and Mary LaFave of Crowe LaFave, and more than $67,151 to Riley Pope law firm attorney Peter Balthazor.
When a reporter learned of the dispute, the settlement agreements were missing from the federal court files. The newspaper then filed an open-records request with the city to get a copy of the settlement and to learn the amounts paid.
Munson and the city agreed never to sue each other again over this dispute. The settlement records also call for the city to drop the criminal charge.