Will the Town Ax Tree Protection Penalties?

April 13, 2011

At a recent Town COWncil meeting, the COWncil reviewed proposed changes to the fines contained in the Town’s Tree Protection Regulations – and ended up just as confused as when they started.

The Town’s current Tree Protection Regulations were established in December of 2006, at the end of a two-year process of public meetings and consultations. The fine structure was originally $1,000 for the first tree removed without permit, $2,000 for the second, and $3,000 per tree thereafter, recommended by the Conservation and Environmental Health Committee (CEHC). Members of the Committee stated that the fine structure was designed to make an impact on behavior in the Town, “letting the public know that the regulations were not to be taken lightly.” No examples of other cities’ fine structures were provided to the COWncil.

With more discussions, the final fines approved by the COWncil were set at $5,000 for the first tree, $7,500 for the second, and $10,000 for each additional tree removed without a Town permit. Since then, two violations of the Town ordinance have been appealed to the Town COWncil – one was the infamous case where trees were removed from Woodside and replanted in Atherton, wherein the $22,500 fine was waived. In the second case, in September 2009 tatter discussion by COWncil the whopping $112,500 fine was reduced to $10,000 after an appeal from the property owners and their friends. In that case the property owners described a “misstep” by not obtaining a $60 permit before thinning a grove of about 35 trees on their 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 owners said they planned to restore a corral area that had become overgrown. They appealed to the COWncil, which reduced the fine to $10,000 after reaching a consensus on the couple’s good intentions.

In the wake of that situation, the Town COWncil instructed staff to review the ordinance and bring proposed changes to the COWncil, as well as review neighboring cities ordinances.

Neighboring cities have a wide variety of remedies, ranging from replacement in kind of the tree, charging the property owner with a misdemeanor, fines as low as $500 per tree or civil penalties up to $5,000 per tree. For example, Monte Sereno requires the tree be replaced with one that is equivalent size, and location. If this can’t be done for whatever reason, the value of the removed trees is assessed against the industry standard bible Guide Establishing Values of Trees and Other Plants. This amount is then doubled and assessed against the property owner.

The Town of Woodside’s fine structure for trees are “far in excess of other jurisdictions’ fines” and they are “problematic for the Town Council when appeals are brought forward” according to the staff report. The COWncil had a long and winding discussion about how best to protect trees in our Town in a way that is enforceable, since it is clear that the Town tends to roll over when a truly large fine is levied against a property owner.

The COWncil debated what fair and enforceable fines would be, with COWncilmembers Tanner and Mason arguing against the staff’s proposed solution of charging double the tree replacement cost to the property owner, saying that the standard tree replacement costs as calculated are far below what it actually costs to replace a tree with an equivalent. Versions of the ordinance where the cost per tree would be a $500 fine was scoffed at as “not a deterrent in this Town.”

Some truly draconian versions of the ordinance were debated, such as the first tree being the true cost of replacement, the second being that plus a fine, the third being the replacement cost and twice the fine, and so on, leading a COWncilmember to ask, “What happens if the cost goes over what a property is worth? Does the owner walk away and the Town now owns the property?” The fact that the Town COWncil was seriously discussing this as a possibility is truly frightening. As COWncilmember Mason pointed out, people who violate whatever ordinance is put in place will always appeal and will always say the amount is too high – but some penalties are just plain crazy.

There was also discussion initiated by Mayor Romines about fines and criminal penalties for tree companies that do illegal work in the Town and who tell homeowners that the work is above board.

Both the COWncil and members of the public had passionate opinions on the subject, but eventually a rough consensus for an ordinance similar to Monte Sereno’s was achieved. Staff will come back with language to the COWncil soon. If you have an opinion, you still have an opportunity to write a letter or email to the COWncil or show up to the COWncil meeting when the ordinance is debated.

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