CQ couple’s dream home became a legal nightmare
THE promise of a dream family home in an idyllic seaside community ended with a nightmare court battle that has cost a young Central Queensland couple more than $10,000.
It was Sheridan Louise Putt's first property, and the place she and fiance Cody Joshua Higgins wanted to settle and raise their son.
But a misunderstanding over land boundaries resulted in the couple illegally removing multiple trees from a Mackay Regional Council-owned nature reserve that backed their Grasstree Beach property.
Compounding the issue, the couple cut down at least one more tree and removed green waste, despite being put on notice by council workers.
And to make matters even worse, Putt "dug a deceptive hole for herself" by lying to council environmental officers and falsely accusing a neighbour of removing some of the trees.
Solicitor Antoinette Morton, of Fisher Dore Lawyers, said the ordeal had forced the couple to decide to sell the home, move to Moranbah and return to working in the mining industry.
Mackay Magistrates Court heard Putt bought the home at 5 Clark St in December 2018 but it was April the following year before the couple could move in because of roof damage that needed to be fixed.
At that time they owned a business and were intending to live in and become members of the community.
Ms Morton said it was their first home and their first interaction with the council and regulatory bodies of that nature.
"They certainly have had, in my submission, a steep learning curve," Ms Morton said.
After moving in the pair spotted trees they believed to be diseased at the back of their property and, also concerned over further damage to their roof, they began using chainsaws to remove vegetation.
"There had been somewhat a history of the area being used by residents as an extension of their own yards," Ms Morton said.
This sparked an angry "but justifiably so" confrontation by neighbours, on May 12, who told Putt, then 23, and Higgins, then 29, the trees belonged to council and to stop what they were doing.
Magistrate Bronwyn Hartigan said "their alarm bells should have been ringing very loudly" following this run-in, but instead, barely a week later, the couple used a chainsaw again to remove at least one more tree and cut up already felled trees.
"When it was put to you (Putt by council) … you falsely accused a neighbour … that it might have been them and that it was definitely not the two of you," Ms Hartigan said.
Then, despite being well aware they were "in trouble by council" the pair hired equipment to remove the green waste from the reserve in July, after deciding to close their business and return to the mines, even though they had been told to wait for a direction from council.
Putt and Higgins pleaded guilty to four counts and three counts each of engaging in prohibited or restricted activity.
Ms Morton pushed for a modest penalty of $250 to $500 for each as they had already agreed to pay the council $5000 compensation plus almost $1900 in costs.
But Ms Hartigan said such a nominal fine would not deter others from illegally cutting down trees.
"If I fine them $250 or $500 people all over Mackay will cut down trees," she said.
"I cannot impose modest penalties on you even though you have agreed to pay compensation to the council and that you've incurred expenses to remove what you did or that you're going to pay the costs.
"Because all of this, while is started perhaps from a position of innocence, was compounded and the reality is you removed the trees that you weren't supposed to and there has to be a message sent to other people that you can't do this."
Convictions were not recorded against either. Putt was fined $2000 and Higgins $1500. Both were ordered to pay $3445.15 in compensation and costs.