It's been eight years since Woodside's Town Council amended the town's tree protection law. The 2006 ordinance defines when a particular species of tree is large enough around to be considered "significant," and the stiff penalties for taking down a significant tree without first obtaining a $50 permit.
Take down three or more significant trees and it can cost you $10,000 per tree.
Except that it never does. The council has heard at least five appeals of major fines since 2009, including one for $92,000. None of the penalties paid have been even close to what the statute calls for. The most recent, on Oct. 28., was more of the same.
Sudhir S. Dixit of Woodside Drive asked the council for mercy over a fine of $12,500 for the felling of two pine trees of significant size without getting a permit. The fine is $5,000 for the first tree and $7,500 for the second. Mr. Dixit said he'd been misinformed by the contractor about the need for a permit, a common complaint.
The council reduced the fine, this time to 10 percent of what is specified. Past penalties have been 7 percent of the fine on the books, 11 percent, and two at 50 percent, both of which included refunds if ameliorative steps were taken.
As in past deliberations, council members were not happy with their record. The council has acted with "terrible inconsistency," said Councilwoman Anne Kasten. The permitting process is not well understood, Councilman Ron Romines said, and a study session is in order.
Mayor Dave Burow said he meets with Town Manager Kevin Bryant "every two weeks, and every two weeks I ask him, 'When are we going to schedule this session?'"
Councilman Dave Tanner suggested sending letters to every resident on the need for tree-destruction permits, and to every contractor within 50 miles "to put them on notice that we fine people for this." Maybe a sign at the entrance to town, he said: "Welcome to Woodside. Get a permit."
Mr. Dixit's drought-stricken Monterey pines were already in their last days and were infested with bark beetles, an arborist told the council.
Fire Marshal Denise Enea of the Woodside Fire Protection District recently singled out Monterey pines, along with eucalyptus, as being fire hazards when located near power lines. But if they're big enough, the municipal code requires a permit to fell even these non-native and potentially hazardous trees.
"I'm kind of torn about whether we should have permits at all for these trees," Mr. Burow said. "They're going to be a fire hazard, so lets get them out of here."