Duke Energy sued for halting work on a Lake Norman home -- due to a tree, owner says

A Lake Norman property owner is suing Duke Energy for ordering him to remove his $10,000 dock and halt the planned construction of a $342,000 home — all because his landscapers mistakenly cut down a tree, he says in a federal lawsuit.

Douglas Ehmann says in the lawsuit that “as a result of the inadvertent cutting of one tree,” Duke “unilaterally, capriciously, and unfairly revoked” his pier permit for five years and “ordered a hold” on a building permit for the home.

The property is off N.C. 73 in the Tranquil Cove subdivision in Huntersville.

Ehmann claims in the lawsuit that spite might also be involved: The Duke Energy official who revoked his dock permit lives just across the cove from his land “and has developed a personal animosity” toward him, according to the lawsuit, which does not elaborate.

Duke Energy had the case transferred to U.S. District Court in Charlotte this week from Mecklenburg County Superior Court, where Ehmann filed the complaint in June. Duke manages Catawba River lakes and their shorelines under license by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In a statement to The Charlotte Observer on Wednesday, Duke Energy officials said “lakefront property owners who want to build piers and docks at Lake Norman must comply with the requirements of the Shoreline Management Plan and Shoreline Management Guidelines.

“Duke Energy enforces the FERC-approved Shoreline Management Plan and Guidelines that contain specific rules regarding the management of vegetation on its property around the lake, with the goal of leaving vegetation in place to provide environmental benefits,“ according to the company’s statement.

“Upland property owners who knowingly and repeatedly violate these requirements risk losing the privilege to have private piers in the lake,” officials said in the statement. “Since this issue involves active litigation, we can’t provide additional comments.”

Duke Energy will file a formal response to the lawsuit in the next few days, company spokeswoman Kim Crawford told The Observer.

In November 2018, according to Ehmann’s lawsuit, his landscapers “inadvertently cut down a tree near the shoreline” of his property. The crew had been told to trim the tree and to cut down another tree “outside the project boundaries,” Ehmann said in the lawsuit. The landscapers misunderstood the instructions, he said.

Ehmann says in the lawsuit that Duke “immediately rejected” his “extensive and expensive restoration plan, including replacement of the cut tree and planting of additional trees, all in accordance with the Shoreline Management Plan and Shoreline Management Guidelines.”

According to the lawsuit, Duke nixed Ehmann’s plans because they “did not include a commitment to destroy and remove the dock/pier,” which the company had approved in 2008.

Duke Energy would not allow Ehmann to appeal the penalty, “so we were left with no other choice” but to file a lawsuit, his lawyer, Kenneth Davies of Charlotte, told The Observer on Wednesday night. “The penalty was so extreme, and we feel it violates the Shoreline Management Guidelines” as far as the penalty for chopping down a single tree.

Ehmann seeks a jury trial and at least $75,000 in damages for lost property value and “lost development potential,” according to his lawsuit.

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Joe Marusak has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1989 covering the people, municipalities and major news events of the region, and was a news bureau editor for the paper. He currently reports on breaking news.