(Delmarvanow.com) -- A Virginia man who bought waterfront property in Northampton County and then cleared it illegally will spend 40 days in jail and pay a fine.
Benjamin Mathai, of Manassas, appeared in Northampton County court Monday for a second trial on charges of unpermitted encroachment into Northampton County’s Resource Protection Area, use of wetlands without a permit and unpermitted land disturbing activity.
The new trial followed Mathai's appeal of his June conviction on the same charges. At his first trial, the district court had sentenced Mathai to 12 months in prison, with 11 months and 10 days suspended, and five years of probation.
At his retrial, Mathai pleaded guilty to the three misdemeanor charges, two of which are Class 1 misdemeanor charges.
Mathai told the court he hired a contractor he found on Craigslist to clear some trees around his house on 2281 Old Neck Road in Exmore, then found the man did not follow his instructions and clear-cut more than 3 acres, leaving the fallen trees on the ground.
He said he was not there when the cutting occurred.
However, the court heard that neighbors who saw the work being done had gone to his home and asked him not to continue cutting the trees.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Bruce Jones said Mathai first asked another contractor to cut the trees. That man informed Mathai he would have to have permits to do it.
Mathai then hired someone else to take down the trees, Jones said.
But the work to mitigate the damage has already begun, said defense attorney Adam Carroll.
On the witness stand, Mathai said he bought the Exmore property in July 2016 to use as a peaceful retreat.
“It is my fault,” he told the court. “There is no peace and tranquility now.
“I hired a contractor to have some trees cut down. He did not do as I wanted. The outcome was not what I anticipated. I had to get an engineer in to restore the property.”
He said he has already paid about $137,000 for the land restoration and replanting of trees. Jones asked Mathai if he told the Wetlands Board under oath he was not there when the trees were cut.
Mathai answered that he may have been there to make a payment.
“Would you deny you told the Wetlands Board under oath you were not there?” asked Jones. The defendant responded that he could not recall what he told the board.
“When the major work was done I was not there,” Mathai said.
Carroll said the property would be monitored for five years to see that the mitigation is being done, and, if sold, the mitigation must continue.
County Planner Kelly Parks testified that she spoke to Mathai three days after the tree cutting and told him about the complaint. She said she had no idea of the scope of the damage to the land and thought it was a routine complaint until she visited the property.
She asked about the man who did the work. She said Mathai told her he paid the man in cash and gave her a telephone number that turned out not to work.
She told the court she had a recording of his telling the Wetlands Board he was not there.
“We learned he was there from talking to neighboring property owners. They went over and said they wished he would stop,” she said.
According to a statement submitted in the court during the first trial by Parks, Mathai “or his agents cut numerous trees within the wetlands, created numerous debris piles within the wetlands, and thus destroyed wetland vegetation and altered the contour of the wetlands without first obtaining a permit.”
Mathai’s contractor used manual labor, chain saws and heavy equipment to remove dirt, grass and a stand of old-growth loblolly pine trees on about 3.5 acres, records show.
“We don’t see too many cases like this,” said Jones. “This is a very stark example of environmental degradation.”
He said though a serious effort is being made to restore the property, “it won’t be in the lifetime of any of us, if ever.”
“When he tried to contract with a man for the site work and was told he had to get permits, he hired someone else,” Jones said.
Jones said he was not going to pursue perjury charges over Mathai’s testimony to the Wetlands Board now, but that it might be pursued by his successor. Jones has announced his retirement at the end of this year.
“A very stiff sentence is in order here. Fines are not that big a deal for him. He cut the trees down for the view. He wanted the trees gone and they are gone,” he said.
“Better to ask forgiveness than permission,” he quoted.
Carroll said his client had an unblemished record. He called Mathai’s actions “an aberration.”
Judge W. Revell Lewis III found Mathai guilty on all three charges.
“He said the contractor cut more than he intended. There is evidence to contradict this. He had an opportunity to stop it. A person ought to know that questions should be asked to the county,” Lewis said.
On the first and second charges, he sentenced Mathai to 12 months and suspended all but 20 days on each and fined him $1,000 on each of the charges. On the third charge he ordered him to pay a fine of $1,000. Mathai will serve 40 days in jail and pay $3,000 in fines.
“The court will review this matter in one year to make sure the mitigation is being implemented," said the judge. He said Mathai could serve his time on weekends.