February 18, 2014

The COWncil almost upheld its own Tree Ordinance for the first time at the January 14th meeting for the unpermitted destruction of two Douglas Fir trees, but ended up doing something far more interesting. Instead of fining the resident on whose property the violations occurred, the COWncil split the fine between the neighbors who were overseeing the work and, for the first time, is planning on fining the tree company for failure to get a permit for the work.

The story is a pretty familiar one in Woodside. The Town receives a complaint that trees are being removed, sends out an inspector who finds trees are being removed without a permit, and issues a stop work order. For the last few years, in theory, that means a hefty fine for the property owner ($5,000 for the first tree of significant size,$7,250 for the second tree, and $10,000 a tree thereafter) as well as a requirement to replant the illegally removed trees. However, the COWncil has a history of knocking the fines down substantially in their role as an appeals board.

The twist this time is that the property owner are an older couple whose trees were removed (with their permission) by a tree company hired by their neighbor. These neighbors claimed that the trees were a fire danger and a danger to power lines in the area, stating that there had been three outages of significant duration just last winter due to falling trees in the area. The property owners in question did not actually show up to the COWncil meeting. Instead, the neighbors who supervised the work came to plead their case. The neighbors laid out a somewhat confusing story that the COWncil found hard to follow, with drips and drabs coming over the more than hour spent discussing the issue. There were parts of the story the COWncil clearly found hard to believe, with the forensic evidence provided by an arborist that the trees were leaning away from any power lines nearby.

However, with evidence from the arborist, it was considered possible that due to the overcrowding of trees on the two neighboring parcels, a permit might have been issued to thin the trees in that area, if it had been applied for. WFPD’s Denise Enea, who was in the audience for another matter, corroborated that that area of Woodside is heavily overgrown. The neighbors claimed that they thought that their tree company, which they found on Yelp, and had a valid contractor’s license, though it is not licensed to do business in Woodside, would pull any needed permits. According to the neighbors, the contractor failed to do so or inform them of any need for a permit.

The COWncil stuck to their point of view that it’s the responsibility of property owners and citizens who contract with professionals to make sure all laws are followed, but clearly had some sympathy for the neighbors and with the property owners in question. Therefore, the COWncil got creative. Instead of filing a lien against the property owners, they fined the neighbors who admitted responsibility. They cut the fine in half to $6,250, but stated that the money would be refunded if the neighbors spent that much on permitted and approved “forest management” on their property with the aim to reduce fire danger. They also instructed staff to file a complaint about the contractor with the State licensing board and to pursue fining the tree company $6,250 for the violation.

This was the first time that the COWncil has ordered this type of remedy, and it wasn’t without controversy, with COWncil member Barbara Kasten at first unsure of the wisdom of taking such a big step and whether it would make it harder to develop and live in Woodside. We applaud the COWncil for being creative and finally ready to break new ground. At the same time, these tree violations occur with regularity. The extent of the tree regulations in Woodside is much greater than most people have experienced elsewhere and most of us do rely on contractors, who should be familiar with the law, to tell us when permits are needed. The Town needs to do a much better job of educating all COWs on what is expected. And, then the COWncil must take steps to make sure that the penalties are fairly administered so that they do not seem random and arbitrary.

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