Rhode Island entrepreneur and Hollywood mobster enthusiast Michael A. Mota is being questioned by Florida authorities who are investigating the clearcutting of protected mangroves at a resort in Port St. Lucie.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection launched an investigation in mid-May after being alerted by a fisherman that the thick stands of mangroves along the shore at Sandpiper Bay Resort were being chopped down.
When inspectors got access to the property two days later, on May 10, more than 17,800 square feet of the red and black mangroves along the St. Lucie River were cut to the ground. Some were more than 24 feet tall.
“It angers me. I’ve fished in that area for 40 years, and that’s critical fish habitat,” said local resident James Dirks, who’d notified DEP. “Mangroves are all over Florida, and you’d have to be an idiot not to know that you’re not supposed to cut them. They just thought they would get away with it.”
The resort had been a Club Med, until it was sold last September to STORE Capital Acquisitions, LLC, in Arizona, and began undergoing renovations.
When DEP staff returned to the resort for a follow-up investigation on May 17, they met with a property manager and Mota, who was a representative of the owner, according to a DEP inspection report.
Mota is the CEO of Hollywood mobster entertainment company VirtualCons in Rhode Island and the president of Bayport International Holdings, a Florida-based public company listed as “buyer beware” by the OTC Markets. He is being chased for money by creditors, vendors, and investors in VirtualCons and his cryptocurrency, VirtualCoin.
Until recently, Mota was also leading the development of the former Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, where he unsuccessfully attempted to get Amos House to sign a $120,000-a-month lease for a homeless shelter. He has been the longtime CEO of Skyline at Waterplace, an event venue in downtown Providence; city officials are trying to evict the company.
Mota has since turned his attention to Florida. In early May, Mota and Florida developer and Bayport CEO Jerrold Krystoff formed a limited-liability company for Sandpiper Bay Marina, next to Sandpiper Bay Resort.
The DEP investigation found that 17,789 square feet of mangroves — 951 feet of the eastern shoreline around the resort — were chopped down. Some of the mangroves were more than 24 feet tall, which would have required an individual permit just to trim them. Others were 10 to 15 feet high.
The DEP would not have permitted altering or destroying any of the mangroves, and categorized the destruction as “significant non-compliance.”
Mota and the property manager told the DEP staff “that the reasoning behind the mangrove removal/cutting was because of a tornado that had impacted the mangroves,” according to a DEP inspection report. “However, the mangroves observed in roll-off dumpsters were full of foliage and healthy.”
Mota and the manager also said “they did not know that a permit was needed to trim/alter mangroves or that they were protected under Florida Statute,” according to the report.
On Tuesday, the Florida DEP sent a warning letter and its inspection report to Chad A. Freed, STORE Capital Acquisitions general counsel and executive vice president, about possible violations of Florida statutes. A copy was shared with the Globe.
Jon W. Moore, spokesman for the DEP’s Southeast District, said Friday that the investigation is ongoing. “This warning letter is the first step of the department’s formal enforcement process, and we have a number of enforcement tools we are able to use to address these violations,” he said in an email.
The DEP is requesting a meeting with Freed; violations may result in liability for damages and restoration, and the judicial imposition of civil penalties. The environmental staff recommended corrective actions, including replanting and monitoring mangroves within the mangrove fringe, and payment of penalties and department costs.
Mota, who is listed as the “contractor/agent” in the inspection report, was copied on the letter.
On Friday, he denied having any involvement. “I was on site and spoke to [DEP] but I am not the contractor or the representative — that is a mistake,” Mota said in an email to a Globe reporter.
Mota said the marina has “nothing to do with the resort” and that he was “staying at the property,” but did not explain why the investigators wanted to talk to him.
“I DID NOT CUT ANYTHING DOWN. I know there was a tornado and storm that happened at the property,” Mota said in an email. “I was there after the storm … that is when I met the representatives.”
It’s unclear what storm Mota is referring to. According to the National Weather Service, the last tornadoes in St. Lucie County were in June 2022, more than 25 miles away from the resort, and caused no damage.
“There was no tornado,” Dirks, the local fisherman, said to the Globe. “Even if there was a tornado, it would have been hard to knock down those mangroves and follow the shoreline. That is why they are on Earth, to protect everything, to protect the shoreline. They are made to withstand hurricanes. Even if the leaves were stripped off, the branches and the roots would be there.”
The removal of the mangroves now gives the resort a clear view of the St. Lucie River. It also puts the property in danger of erosion and storm damage, and destroys the habitats of fish, birds, oysters, and other creatures dependent on these unique evergreens.
“It’s devastating,” said Loraé T. Simpson, the director of scientific research and conservation, at the Florida Oceanographic Society.
Mangroves are special to this subtropical area and protected for a reason. These ageless trees have adapted to conditions of salt spray, tides, and storms that other plants can’t survive, and they anchor an ecosystem of coral reefs, oyster beds and seagrass beds. Fish spend some of their life cycles hiding in the mangroves. So do birds.
Their roots act like a sponge, soaking up nutrients and preventing harmful algae blooms, and storing carbon. Their roots also hold down the sand and keep the shoreline in place. They are strong enough to withstand storms — Simpson laughed at the idea of them being damaged in a weak tornado — and buffer against stormy seas.
“Mangroves live forever, unless something terrible happens,” she said.
The mangroves around Sandpiper Bay Resort have been chopped to barely six inches to a foot high. They will all die. And, even with replanting, it will take 50 years to a century to recover the ecosystems that were lost, Simpson said.
But, Simpson said, damage will be felt immediately.
“They wont be able to fish there any more, because there’s nothing to hold the fish,” she said. “They will see erosion of shoreline. It will start to sink and subside into the water more. Once the roots die, they will shrivel up, and they will lose elevation and property. The seagrass adjacent to it will get smothered, because of sand. If there are birds that love the trees, they are gone.”
As storms arise, the mangroves won’t be there to protect the resort’s shoreline, so the owner will have to build a seawall or lose the land, she said. “When you have big trees, they slow down the movement of water over land. If you don’t have the mangroves, the water will hit your house quicker,” Simpson said. “You’ve cut down the one structure that keeps your land there.”
While landscapers in Florida know not to trim or cut mangroves without strict permits, Simpson said there are developers who push anyway, willing to risk being fined for violating the laws in order to get those million-dollar views.
“There needs to be more stringent repercussions to stop it,” she said.