It isn't the first five-figure penalty the Woodside Town Council has assessed on a property owner for felling mature trees without first obtaining a $50 permit, but at $26,250, it is the largest since establishing the penalties in 2007.
The property owner, Rajiv Gujral, may request a refund of up to $16,250 after showing evidence of having spent the amount requested on rehabilitating parts of the small forest on his three acres at 330 Jane Drive. The forest will need much more care than $16,000 can buy to bring it around to a healthy state, said Councilman and general contractor Dave Tanner, echoing an opinion expressed earlier by San Mateo arborist Kevin Kielty, who testified on behalf of Mr. Gujral.
Woodside's municipal code specifies a fine of $52,500 for felling six "significant" trees, but council members, as they have done for similar cases in recent years, said the full penalty would have been too stiff. Councilman Tom Shanahan proposed cutting the penalty in half and including a partial refund.
Mr. Gujral admitted being mistaken in thinking that he was getting reliable advice on the procedures for taking down bay laurel trees -- notorious for their capacity to harbor Sudden Oak Death (SOD) microbes. He noted that none of the nearby oaks on his three-acre plot at 330 Jane Drive had been harmed in the operation. "I'm asking for leniency from the town," he said. "I'm appealing to your good nature."
Woodside resident Debbie Mendelson, an activist in the Peninsula's battle with SOD, was among three residents who urged the council to apply the prescribed penalties, established by the council in 2007. "The Town Council created the fines. The Town Council should enforce what they created," she said.
The council has been to this crossroads before, and as happened in the case with Mr, Gujral, the council fretted about the appropriateness of the penalty as prescribed and lowered it.
■ In October 2009, the council scaled back to $10,000 an initial fine of $92,500 for the cutting of 10 coast live oaks.
■ In July 2011, the council reduced to $5,000 a prescribed fine of $72,500 for the cutting of seven bay laurels and one buckeye.
■ One month later, in August, the council lowered a $42,500 fine to $11,074, the appraised value of the trees.
In discussing Mr. Gujral's case, the council appeared to agree on modifying the specific penalties of $5,000 for the first tree, $7,500 for the second and $10,000 for each subsequent tree. The penalties should include the words "up to," those amounts, allowing the council to reserve the full penalties for egregious violations.