Almanac

News - March 16, 2011

Woodside may step up punishment for violating heritage tree ordinance

by Dave Boyce

The trees of Woodside and those who love them would be justified in feeling cautiously optimistic about a coming revision to tree protection laws. The Town Council is considering a change that could financially persuade even some deep-pocketed residents into getting a permit before cutting down a heritage tree.

If the council acts on the inclination it showed on March 8, the revised law — staff is working on revisions — could require violators to pay for the purchase, planting and maintenance of a full-grown heritage tree equivalent in size and presence to the illegally removed tree.

Replacing such a tree is complicated, Henry Ardalan, president of City Arborist, a Menlo Park tree care and landscaping company, said in an interview. To be successful, the arborist must account for the time of year, the species, site conditions and the location, which may need to accommodate a flatbed truck and a crane. The cost could be anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 to replace one tree, Mr. Ardalan said.

Under the current system of fines, set in 2007, violators are supposed to pay $5,000 for the first illegally cut heritage tree, $7,500 for the second and $10,000 for each one after that. But in September 2009, when it came time to mete out the punishment, the council backed off.

Residents Dr. Eric and Jacquie Weiss were facing fines of at least $92,000 after a "misstep," Dr. Weiss said at the time, in not obtaining a $60 permit before thinning a grove of about 35 trees on their Sand Hill Road property by removing 10 significant Coast Live Oaks.

A tree is significant in Woodside if it measures 9.5 inches in diameter at 48 inches above ground.

The Weisses said they planned to restore a corral area that had become overgrown. They appealed to the council, which reduced the fine to $10,000 after reaching a consensus on the couple's good intentions.

Another test case could be ahead. During the council's meeting, a resident of West Maple Way spoke of an incident in which her neighbor, without giving notice or getting a permit, reportedly had workers fell a strip of significant trees that bordered the resident's driveway.

"They were fined," the resident said. "The fine has not been paid. The owner is waiting to see if you change the ordinance to see if (the fine) goes down," the resident said.

"How do you value a tree? How do you value my property now that my privacy is gone," she asked the council, noting that young replacement trees would delay the return of her privacy by 30 to 40 years. "I'm furious. I'm furious at this person's attack. They had their people in my driveway working on it. ... I hope you raise the fines."

The neighbor has appealed the penalty to the council, Town Manager Susan George said. Any change to the fines would not likely affect this incident, Mayor Ron Romines told the Almanac.

As for a $100,000 tag to install one tree, Mr. Romines said he was surprised and that the council will be looking for a way to deter egregious acts while not assessing unreasonable penalties.

Assessing penalties

A March 8 staff report by Ms. George included a survey of tree protection laws in nine Bay Area communities, including Atherton, Portola Valley, Palo Alto and Redwood City. Fines of $500 and $1,000 are common.

Woodside's fine is "rather high," she said. The staff recommended a standardized and predictable process, such as a requirement to either replace the tree or pay a fine of twice the tree's appraised value as specified in an industry reference book. The replacement option could require a refundable bond from the violator to help the tree through its vulnerable first two years

If a more severe penalty is needed, as in the case of a wanton clear-cut, the town could attach a code violation to the property that would halt all development there until the replacement trees are safely growing, about two years. "We were thinking that that would be a deterrent to doing wholesale cutting," Ms. George said.

"It seems like the ideal solution is to replace the tree with an equivalent tree," Mayor Romines said. "I really think that a very stiff number is needed to educate people that you don't remove trees."

"I'm very troubled by people finding loopholes to drive through," Councilwoman Anne Kasten said.

"Nobody's going to pay the fine," Councilman Peter Mason said. "It's going to get finagled and what do we do to the finaglers?"

Enforce the code violation, which has a side effect of complicating any attempt to sell the property, Ms. George replied.

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