The property owner, Rajiv Gujral, may be refunded up to $16,250 with evidence of having spent the amount requested to begin rehabilitating the small forest on his three acres on Jane Drive. The forest has been ignored and is in need of much more care than $16,000 can buy, said Councilman and general contractor Dave Tanner, an opinion shared by arborist Kevin Kielty, who testified on Mr. Gujral's behalf.
Woodside's municipal code specifies a fine of $52,500 for felling six "significant" trees, but council members, as they have done for similar cases in recent years, said the full penalty would have been too stiff. Councilman Tom Shanahan suggested halving the penalty and including a partial refund. The council agreed on a 6-0 vote, with Councilman Ron Romines absent.
Mr. Gujral said he had been badly advised on felling bay laurel trees, notorious for their capacity to harbor sudden oak death (SOD) microbes. None of the nearby oaks had been harmed, he said. "I'm asking for leniency from the town," he said. "I'm appealing to your good nature."
Resident Susan Poletti called the $52,500 penalty "despicable" and harangued the council. "Each one of you was voted by your neighbors to represent them. That (U.S.) flag represents our government. That flag represents our individuality. That flag represent our idea that individual rights matter in this country ... the fact that our rights come from our creator. ... Those are [Mr. Gujral's] trees. He bought and paid for that property. He bought and paid for those trees."
Woodside resident Debbie Mendelson, active in the Peninsula's battle with SOD, urged application of the prescribed penalties. "The Town Council created the fines. The Town Council should enforce what they created," she said.
Mercy is appropriate in this case, said Councilman Tanner. Tree-trimming contractors misinform homeowners, and homeowners pay the price. "I don't think this was a deliberate act."
A lower fine is justified, said Councilman Dave Burow, because Mr. Gujral would probably have gotten a permit had he sought one.
Mayor Anne Kasten spoke directly to Mr. Gujral. "To me, if you buy a piece of property here, you have a responsibility," she said. "I think in Woodside, what we do with the land is very important to us. I'm afraid you haven't been doing quite as much as you should."
She also addressed critics urging stiffer penalties, noting that this incident did not involve clear-cutting. "We work really hard to do what's right for Woodside," she said. "(A fine of) $52,000 is for something that everybody in town will agree is off the charts. This is not off the charts."
In discussing Mr. Gujral's case, the council appeared agreeable to adding a range to the specific penalties now set at $5,000 for the first tree, $7,500 for the second and $10,000 for each subsequent tree.