CODE ENFORCEMENT BLUES: BRUSH, TREES, AND FIRE

December 2, 2013

During the recent Town COWncil meeting, Kevin Bryant took the unusual step of putting his Town Manager’s Report into the New Business section of the meeting instead of in the COWnsent Calendar. The Town Manager wanted COWncil direction on a code enforcement issue that is definitely worth talking about.

The item was about tree and vegetation removal on a resident’s property. Another resident had called staff and complained about the extent of clearing on a neighbor’s property – the resident could now see much farther into their neighbor’s property than they could before. Upon investigation, the staff found that three trees had been removed without permits, but the larger issue was that most of the vegetation being removed from the site didn’t require a permit. The Town’s only tool to regulate non-tree vegetation removal is the requirement that if the vegetation removal exceeds 10,000 square feet or 25% of the lot size, a site development permit is required. Kevin Bryant suggested that the Town could investigate what neighboring communities do, but he cautioned that there were lots of items on the work plan as it is and that brush clearing may be hard to regulate. He noted that this was an issue that was probably going to come up more and more.

COWncil member Peter Mason chimed in with the observation that the rules for protecting the dusky-footed wood rat and for encouraging the land to remain in the natural state should be covering some of this issue, but also noted that fire prevention was an important Town goal.

A number of COWs expressed their opinions. There was cowncern that the Town has too many regulations as it is. One resident said that the clearing on Manzanita “broke her heart” – leaving “lollipop trees.” She said she hated seeing old estates being demolished with just sticks left. Adolph Rosekrans spoke, saying that clearing for fire reasons is the “highest priority” in Woodside, that the Town is ripe for a major fire.

COWncil member Tom Shanahan passed out photos of what he called ‘clearcutting’ on the Manzanita property, saying there’s a difference between pruning and going out there with a Bobcat and 25 guys. COWncil member Gordon stated that there needs to be a rationalization of fire regulations, saying she’s cut all her vegetation back and is still getting spoken to by the fire department. She says that this has encouraged her not to replant given that she doesn’t know what they want from her, compared to her neighbor across the street whose property is much more vegetated. She called for some sort of consistency.

Other COWncil members also spoke on the topic, with Peter Mason saying that he didn’t think the Town did a good job on fire protection. He pointed out that the lushly-vegetated Woodside we see today is very different from how the Town looked sixty years ago, with photos from the 1950s showing properties covered only in oak trees and spindly second-growth redwoods, and that all that we see today has grown up since then and that the Town is now very overgrown.

The COWncil asked for the vegetation-removal matter to be put on the work plan. Fire protection is a cause near and dear to all our hearts in Woodside, but we also prize our rural appearance. Will the COWncil manage to walk the line and find workable rules that don’t stop people from being able to develop and enjoy their property? We’re more than a little cow-ncerned!

Along with this item in the Report was another item on the Town’s Tree Ordinance. An analysis of tree-removal permits showed that 1,175 trees have been removed from 2010-2012, with 31% of them being oaks of various kinds, and that most permits either had no or an inadequate arborist’s report. The report, issued by two members of the Town’s Sustainability and Conservation Committee, concluded that, “It seems that the Town’s objective is to provide a permit and not necessarily preserve trees,” and wondered whether “all staff members know the ordinance and understand its intent.” They did conclude that “the majority of the time residents did have legitimate, ordinance abiding reason to destroy the tree(s).” It seems likely that the COWncil will take yet another pass at the Tree Ordinance one of these days.

Trees create the ambiance we seek for our cow-munity but they are also a renewable resource. Natural vegetation adds to the rural appearance of our Town but can also be a fire hazard. When you walk a tightrope, it is important to keep a balance.

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