News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

From wetland to wasteland: trees on Gainesville woman’s property removed

A tree stands at about 100 feet in Witte’s yard. This is one of many of this height. (Bailey Korinek/WUFT News)
A tree stands at about 100 feet in Witte’s yard. This is one of many of this height. (Bailey Korinek/WUFT News)

Julianna Witte, 61, watched her two sons grow up in her 11-acre backyard, running wild, letting nature be their teacher.
She did not anticipate the backdrop to their childhood would be bulldozed years later.

“As widows, we feel deceived, vulnerable and taken advantage of by the county,” Witte said, gazing onto her property, tears streaming down her face. “It’s been a nightmare.”

In October 2019, Alachua County Public Works clear-cut acres of mature trees off her property, located in the Tomoca Hills, a subdivision about 30 minutes west of Gainesville, along a drainage easement.

“When my boys were young, we used to go down there and have a picnic,” she said. “We would venture through and pick wild blackberries. It was our little secret.”

Witte filed a complaint to sue Alachua County on Sept. 21 for its alleged trespassing, destruction of her property and refusal to compensate her for the lost trees. The complaint states that $50,000 worth of timber was illegally removed from the property.

“Fifty truckloads of our mature trees, over five days, were hauled to a field and then burned. My neighbor watched these trucks and counted every one of them,” she said through tears. After two or three days of work, she said it took workers a week to haul the debris away, taking the lumber to be burned in a field.

“All of these acres of trees polluted our air for no reason,” she said. “It’s absolutely tragic.”

The COVID-19 pandemic started shortly after the land was cleared, and Alachua County abandoned the project for almost two years, according to the complaint. Witte lived with the weeds and unkempt land until February of this year when Alachua County sent a verbal notice to Witte of its intent to build a stormwater basin in her backyard.
Witte and her lawyer, Jefferson Braswell, sent a cease and desist, demanding the county replant the trees and repair the damage. She also placed a “no trespassing” sign and a lock on the fence that previously gave access to her yard. In March, the two met with a county attorney to discuss possible solutions.

One month later, the lock was cut off and her fence was knocked down.

“I dare to use the language, but basically you’re stealing,” Braswell said. “You don’t cut down somebody’s timber and walk off with it and think it’s OK — It’s not.”
Witte walked through her overgrown yard, thinking back to the fateful April day.

“I stood in between the two bulldozers and said either kill me or stop,” she said. The crew ignored her pleas and resumed working once she walked back inside her home, she said.

“Where is your authority to enter another person’s land?” Braswell asked. He said the county’s breach of private property rights is at the crux of the issue. “They’ve gone and exceeded that right enormously,” he said.

Mark Sexton, the communications director for Alachua County, said the county is aware of the active lawsuit and plans on making its position clear.

“That drainage easement gives the county the legal right to do everything that has been done on that property,” he said. “There are improvements and maintenance that are needed and it’s the county’s right to do those things.”

Sexton added Witte’s property is part of a platted subdivision that was approved by Alachua County. He said the Tomoca Hills subdivision gives a drainage easement to the county and, therefore the right to maintain that easement as the county deems necessary.

“By the very nature of the drainage easement, the county needs to have access to that easement,” he said while explaining how the county entered Witte’s property. “That’s one of the rights the easement gives the county.”

Sexton emphasized the county’s responsibility to maintain the drainage easement to alleviate flooding. He said neighbors downstream from Witte’s property are being flooded, thus the county has decided to move forward with the project.

The complaint states Alachua County potentially violated state law by destroying the area without first obtaining a stormwater permit or performing an environmental inventory of the protected plant and animal species. It also states the property was a protected wetland that possessed threatened species, an assertion the county disputes.

“We are choosing to engage in this lawsuit because we think we are doing the right thing here, it is not a protected wetland.”
The county commission voted unanimously to recommence work on her property on Sept. 12, aiming to create a stormwater basin on her property to redirect 91st Street flooding. Stormwater Engineer James Link said the basins alleviate long-term, persistent flooding in Alachua County.

“It’s not up to the property owner,” he said. “It’s the legal mechanism to keep the stormwater system in place.”

But Witte said water mostly collects in a low-lying region between her and her neighbor’s property rather than pooling in what she affectionately calls Lake Witte.

“I don’t catch but a portion of it,” she said while standing in the middle of Lake Witte, dry after days without rain. Despite her and the county’s disagreement on where the basin should be located, Witte stated her clear intentions: “I wanted to be a good neighbor,” she said. “I still do.”

She said the damage has been done, but she is open to finding a solution after heartbreak.

“I don’t want to be in a lawsuit, I really don’t,” she said. “I don’t have the money, but I don’t know what else I can do.”

Witte reminisced over stories of her sons growing up, spotting different animal tracks and learning from them. Now, she said she can hardly find any.

“I don’t see the wild turkeys anymore,” she said. “It was hilarious, they used to sit on my fence after the rain drying because they felt safe. Now they’re gone.”

Snaking through the weeds, Witte marched on. She said the house and property are for her children, and she is resolving the issue for them.

Witte expressed her ideal solution: Put the trees back. Protect the ecosystem’s future.

“It was functioning before,” she said. “The massive trees drank up all the water, it was a mutually beneficial system.” Without the trees, she said there is nowhere for the water to go.

“They’ve destroyed the ecological system,” she said. “In my lifetime, it will never be the same. I’m just trying to figure out what I can do for the next generation.”

This story has been revised for accuracy since it was first published.


Bailey is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing