An Isle of Palms man may spend five days in jail after he cut down two significant trees on the island — on land that he didn't own.
Jonathan Gandolfo, who has been battling the town over the tree cutting incident since 2016, was found guilty Tuesday of two counts related to the removal of two trees at 408 Carolina Blvd.
He did not cut the trees himself but directed their cutting by a contractor, according to an IOP police incident report.
Gandolfo was sentenced to 30 days in jail on each count, with the sentence suspended so that he would instead spend one day and then two consecutive weekends in the Charleston County jail, and then spend two weekends completing community service.
He must also pay a fine of $1,087.
Gandolfo declined to comment on the case. His attorney, Frank Cornely, said his client has not decided whether to appeal the verdict, handed down in municipal court, but he has 10 days from the conviction to do so.
At the same time, Gandolfo still may face civil penalties from the town, which also has the ability to fine him for violating the tree-cutting ordinance.
"We would hope that the lines of communication would remain open so we can amicably resolve (the case)," Cornely said.
Gandolfo did not own the land where the trees were cut, but its owners have not pressed charges against him to date. Their property previously was under contract with Gandolfo as the buyer, but the sale didn't close, Cornely said.
According to the police incident report from 2016, the contractor who cut the trees had texts on his phone from Gandolfo urging the contractor "be a ninja about it and be quick so the code guys don't interrupt you."
While tree cutting ordinances often cause conflicts between property owners who want to use their land as they see fit and local jurisdictions who seek to preserve the landscape, it's rare that such cases result in jail time.
The Isle of Palms City Council had the option to accept a settlement from Gandolfo in lieu of sending the case to trial, but it voted 5-4 to reject that offer at its Nov. 27 meeting.
The terms of the settlement, which was discussed in a closed session, were not available.
Councilman Ryan Buckhannon was one of the members of the panel that rejected the settlement.
"We have laws in place for a reason, and if somebody can just circumvent the laws with money, it's not fair to the rest of the residents," Buckhannon said.
Councilwoman Susan Smith voted to accept the settlement but said that decision was difficult. She wanted to make sure the city got a positive outcome from the case.
"I mainly just wanted to make sure that (Gandolfo) had some punitive consequences," she said, adding that she hopes the outcome of the court case "sends a strong message that we are a community that values trees."
At the trial, an arborist testifying in Gandolfo's defense argued there was not enough evidence to prove the two cut trees were actually protected under the city's ordinances, Cornely said.
The city employed its own competing tree expert, and ultimately the jury found that argument more compelling.
Gandolfo, who unsuccessfully ran for an IOP council seat last year, said then that the tree cutting episode spurred him to run for the position.
Ultimately, he lost a three-way runoff for two seats, bested by Buckhannon and John Moye.