By a 6-1 vote on Jan. 14, the council rejected Stadler Drive residents Elton and Sara Satusky's appeal of a $12,500 fine for the felling two mature Douglas firs without a permit. The council halved the fine of $5,000 for the first tree and $7,500 for the second. A full $6,250 refund is available if the couple spends the same amount in managing forest health and fire safety among the approximately 200 trees said to be on their property, which is adjacent to the deeply forested Wunderlich Park.
Councilman Ron Romines, voting no, disagreed with the refund offer. "My concern was that (decision) allows folks who cut the trees to end up with no fine whatsoever," he said in an interview.
The council also reaffirmed the view that contractors share responsibilities around acquiring permits. In a departure from previous rulings, however, the town will assess a $6,250 fine against the contractor in this case, the Juan Huerta B. Tree Service in Redwood City. The council also required the couple's cooperation in working with the town to register complaints about the contractor to the Contractors State License Board.
In appealing the staff's $12,500 fine, Ms. Satusky noted that the contractor had a stump-grinding machine and five stars in its Yelp listing.
"I had a really good feeling," she said. "I didn't realize that I had to go and get a permit. … You know what I mean? I just didn't know."
Mr. Satusky added: "My wife thought the tree contractor pulled the permit. He thought we did. We're law-abiding citizens. I've never broken the law."
The felled firs were overcrowded, said Roy C. Leggitt III, an arborist with Tree Management Experts in San Francisco and a consultant for the Satuskys. There were "lots of trees in a really small space," he said. "That kind of congestion is not fire safe and it's not sustainable. We stop (natural forest) fires and we end up with too many trees. ... A fire (on such a slope) would be absolutely catastrophic in a setting like that."
Nevertheless, the couple should pay the full fine and seek redress from the contractor, said Councilman Dave Tanner in the discussion before agreeing to a reduced fine. "The action was done without permits. We have an ordinance that says we need permits," he said.
"As homeowners," Councilwoman Anne Kasten said, speaking to the appellants, "you have responsibilities, and one of them is to oversee the people who work for you." Forest management is also a responsibility and should be revisited every year, she added.