Almanac

News - July 2, 2014

Woodside cuts fine in half for trees felled without permit

by Dave Boyce

It has become a familiar pattern. A Woodside resident comes to the Town Council to appeal a five-figure fine for having felled mature trees without first obtaining a permit. The council deliberates over the unforgiving character of the fines in the eight-year-old ordinance and whether it should be revisited. And after more discussion, usually on by how much to reduce the fine, a majority on the council votes to reduce it.

It's happened four times since 2009 and it happened again June 24. Residents Michael Dorsey and Susan Ford Dorsey were fined $11,250 for the felling of three mature bay laurel trees, exactly half of the $22,500 the municipal code calls for. The council voted 6-1, with Councilman Ron Romines dissenting.

The penalties are set at $5,000 for the first tree, $7,500 for the second and $10,000 for each subsequent tree. A tree-cutting permit from Town Hall is $50, but actually getting a permit requires consultation and agreement from a professional arborist.

Town staff learned of the downed trees in March and issued a code violation notice. Mr. Dorsey appealed the fine. "... We were told by many people that Bay trees are bad for Oak trees," he explained in his appeal. "We have more than 100 Oak trees that we are passionate about protecting. So, I wasn't as vigilant as I should have been in protecting the Bay trees."

Appearing before the council, Mr. Dorsey spoke briefly — to apologize for not knowing the regulations, and to thank the members for their voluntary public service. Mr. Dorsey is a venture capitalist and has been a Woodside resident for 12 years, he said. The couple have about 7.7 acres on Family Farm Road.

Ms. Ford Dorsey, who was also present at the meeting, is the widow of Tom Ford, who was a resident of Portola Valley, a philanthropist and the moving force behind the development of Sand Hill Road into a center of gravity for venture capitalism.

A philanthropist herself, Ms. Ford Dorsey has given $7.5 million to an international studies program at Stanford University and recently offered as much as $100,000 in matching funds for the renovation of Ford (baseball) Field in Portola Valley. She co-founded the after-school academic program Center for a New Generation and has held many nonprofit leadership positions.

About bay laurels

Bay laurels are native to California and are strong suspects in cases of sudden oak death. When bay trees are felled without a permit, Woodside property owners who appeal their fines often speak of concern for oak trees as justification.

The Forest Pathology and Mycology Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley states that bay laurel leaves are a principal carrier of the disease, for which there is no cure. Management options, including spraying, injections, and removing bays, are effective only if done before the oaks are infected, according to the lab website. But determining whether a tree is infected is tricky. Symptoms can be misleading and validation requires lab analysis.

Scientists from the Berkeley lab visit Woodside and Portola Valley annually for SOD workshops. Residents gather samples of potentially diseased material, turn them in and wait, generally several weeks, for test results.

The Dorseys' oaks had been sprayed to try to get ahead of SOD, Mr. Dorsey said in response to a question from Councilman Romines. Mr. Dorsey said that he was unaware that bay laurels were protected by town laws.

To cut the bays, they hired a man recommended by their gardener, Mr. Dorsey said. "I guess they're licensed, but it's not one of the names that we would recognize," he said.

Well-informed laborers are important. Cutting an infected tree leaves SOD microbes on tools, shoes and tires, all of which should be decontaminated, according to the California Oak Mortality Task Force. Pets can transfer the disease. Infected wood is not supposed to leave the property.

How big a fine?

During the discussion before they voted on a fine, council members tipped their hands a bit.

"Well, here we go again. Unlicensed people, unprofessional people taking down these trees again," said Councilman Dave Tanner. "We have a rule. We set the rules up in place to protect our trees. We do it with the fines."

In earlier cases, Councilman Romines said, the council has reduced the fines. "I think we need to do our job and abide by the ordinance," he said, adding that a study session might be in order.

Consistency with past practices is important, said council members Deborah Gordon and Tom Shanahan. "Most people in town understand that you shouldn't cut trees without a permit," Mr. Shanahan said. "I find a lot of mitigation here. I don't see a massive crime here. I see that mistakes were made." He called for a fine of $5,000 to $10,000.

Councilman Peter Mason agreed on reducing the fine, adding that the high fines are meant to prevent egregious behavior, such as clear cutting. They should remain high and the council's job should be to consider the nuances of an incident in settling on a fine, he said.

Mayor Dave Burow said he agreed on keeping high fines, but that they might differ based on whether a permit would likely have been given. There would be no debate in egregious cases, he added.

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