It has become a familiar pattern. A Woodside resident comes to the Town Council to appeal a five-figure fine for having felled mature trees without having first obtained a permit. The council deliberates over the unforgiving character of the eight-year-old ordinance and whether it should be revisited. After more discussion, usually on by how much to reduce the fine, a majority on the council votes to reduce it.
It's happened four times since 2009 and it happened again on June 24. Residents Michael Dorsey and Susan Ford Dorsey were fined $11,250 for the felling of three mature bay laurel trees, exactly half the $22,500 fine the municipal code calls for. The council voted 6-1, with Councilman Ron Romines dissenting.
The penalties are set at $5,000 for the first tree, $7,500 for the second and $10,000 for each subsequent tree. A tree-cutting permit from Town Hall is $50.
Town staff learned of the downed trees in March and issued a code violation notice. After meetings with the staff and the levying of the fine, the Dorseys appealed, according to a staff report. "... We were told by many people that Bay trees are bad for Oak trees," the Dorseys wrote in their appeal. "We have more than 100 Oak trees that we are passionate about protecting. So, I wasn't as vigilant as I should have been in protecting the Bay trees."
Appearing before the council, Mr. Dorsey spoke briefly -- to apologize for not knowing the regulations, and to thank the members for their voluntary public service. Mr. Dorsey is a venture capitalist, and has been a Woodside resident for 12 years, he said. The couple have about 7.7 acres on Family Farm Road, he said.
Ms. Ford Dorsey, who was also present at the meeting, is the widow of Tom Ford of Portola Valley, a philanthropist and the moving force behind the development of Sand Hill Road into a center of gravity for venture capitalism.
A philanthropist herself, Ms. Ford Dorsey has given $7.5 million to an international studies program at Stanford University and recently offered up to $100,000 in matching funds for the renovation of Ford (baseball) Field in Portola Valley. She co-founded the after-school academic program Center for a New Generation and has held many nonprofit leadership positions.
About bay laurels
Bay laurels are native to California and are strong suspects in cases of Sudden Oak Death. In cases involving the felling of bay trees, Woodside property owners who appear before the council often talk of their concern for their oak trees as justification.
The Forest Pathology and Mycology Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley states that bay laurel leaves are a principal carrier of the disease. There is no cure for SOD, and all management options, including spraying, injections, and removing the bays, are effective only if done before the oaks are infected, according to the lab website. But determining whether a tree is infected is tricky. Symptoms can be misleading and validation requires lab analysis.
Scientists from the Berkeley lab visit Woodside and Portola Valley annually on SOD blitzes. Recently, the Atherton community was invited. Residents gather samples of potentially diseased material, hand them in and wait, generally several weeks, for test results.
The Dorseys' oaks had been sprayed to try to get ahead of SOD, Mr. Dorsey said in response to a question from Councilman Romines.
They hired a man recommended by their gardener, Mr. Dorsey said. "I guess they're licensed, but it's not one of the names that we would recognize," he said.
How big a fine?
Council members tipped their hands during the discussion before a vote on how big the fine should be.
"Well, here we go again. Unlicensed people, unprofessional people taking down these trees again," said Councilman Dave Tanner. "We have a rule. We set the rules up in place to protect our trees. We do it with the fines."
In earlier cases, Councilman Romines said, the council has reduced the fines. "I think we need to do our job and abide by the ordinance," he said, adding that a study session on the ordinance might be in order.
Consistency with past practices is important, said Councilman Tom Shanahan. "Most people in town understand that you shouldn't cut trees without a permit," he said. "I find a lot of mitigation here. I don't see a massive crime here. I see that mistakes were made." He called for a fine of $5,000 to $10,000.
Councilwoman Anne Kasten said she was "really perplexed" that the bay trees had been cut down, given the care the couple had taken with their oaks. "I don't get it," she said. "Clearly, you're good citizens."
Mr. Dorsey had earlier testified that he was unaware that bay laurels were protected by town laws.
The council has been over this ground too often, said Councilwoman Deborah Gordon. The fine should be consistent with past decisions and the ordinance, enacted after a major incident involving clear cutting, "isn't doing what we wanted it to do," she said.
Councilman Peter Mason proposed that reducing the fine was appropriate, and that the high fines in the code were meant to prevent incidents that involve egregious behavior, such as massive clear cutting. The high fines should remain on the books, and the council's job is to consider the nuances of an incident in deciding what the fine should be, he said.
Mayor Dave Burow suggested that the fine structure have different levels according to whether it's likely that a permit would have been given. "We need to keep the fine in place because people need to know that they need to get a permit," he said. There would be no debate in egregious cases, he added.