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Portola Valley: Trees downed illegally, but no fine this time

The property owner reported the violation and the site is hidden and on private land.

Another case of illegal downing of significant trees in Portola Valley, this time on private land and out of sight of the public and neighbors, came before the town's Architectural & Site Control Commission (ASCC) in January.

The case involved 19 trees, mostly bay laurels, on the grounds of the Villa Lauriston estate at 5050 Alpine Road, according to an ASCC staff report.

The trees were located in secluded Jones Gulch, but on a fairly steep slope that drains into an area potentially populated by two designated at-risk animals: the dusky-footed wood rat and the California red-legged frog. The risk to these species brings into the case the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In a similar case about a year ago involving 18 trees on a highly visible stretch of public land, the Town Council clamped down on the owner of 18 Redberry Ridge with a site-development ban, a hefty fine, and a replanting program.

This time, the town is going with an erosion-control and replanting program. It was significant that the property owner reported the violation and that the site is hidden and on private land, said Deputy Town Planner Karen Kristiansson.

Representatives of the property owner told Portola Valley staff about it on Oct. 30, the report says. Along with the bay laurels, a species that can harbor microbes that transmit sudden oak death (SOD), the downed trees included two buckeyes, three redwoods, and one big-leaf maple, all on about an acre of land.

A landscaping company hired by the property owner was maintaining the site, Ms. Kristiansson told the Almanac. The owner of Villa Lauriston does not live there, she said. The town has been communicating with Monte Leon LLC on Bryant Street in Palo Alto.

An arborist concluded that most of the trees were in poor health, the staff report says. Emergency erosion control began in mid-November.

The town's municipal code categorizes trees by species; many become significant when their diameters reach 11.5 inches. Cutting a significant tree without first obtaining a permit can result in a code violation being attached to the property, which then prohibits all site development work there until the violation is rectified to the satisfaction of town officials.

The property owner is taking responsibility for not obtaining a permit and has been "very cooperative and is moving ahead as quickly as he can to correct the situation," Ms. Kristiansson said. Site development is restricted pending success of a replanting program, she said.

From little acorns

Along with erosion control, the remedies include adding about 300 plants with temporary irrigation. The owner is required to monitor progress for three to five years and must check in with the ASCC periodically. Asked how much all this would cost, Ms. Kristiansson replied: "I'm certain we're into six figures."

The new trees will include oaks and a few redwoods. The oaks would be starting from scratch as acorns rather than even very young trees. Acorns, as they grow, will accommodate themselves to the steep slope, something that would be much more difficult for trees "of any size," Ms. Kristiansson said.

The five-member ASCC approved the remedies on a unanimous vote on Jan. 9.

In the Redberry Ridge case in January 2013, some of the trees were located on public land visible from across the valley. After negotiations with property owner David L. Douglass, the Town Council assessed him a $75,000 fine and ordered a $150,000 remediation plan that included about a dozen new oaks.

The mansion at Villa Lauriston was the work of medicinal-herbs entrepreneur Herbert Law, who built it early in the 20th century. It went up for auction in April 2013 with starting bids at $8.88 million, auctioneer Guy Masters told the Almanac at the time. It sold in 2013 for $13 million, according to Mr. Master's website.

The Lauriston estate comprised hundreds of acres, that size perhaps signified by the location of its gatehouse -- the black stone tower at 451 Portola Road.

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