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July 20, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Woodside: Town orders property owner to replant clear-cut lot Woodside: Town orders property owner to replant clear-cut lot (July 20, 2005)

** Owner claims ignorance of lumberjacks run amok.

By Andrea Gemmet.

Almanac Staff Writer

If a bunch of trees fall in Woodside, you can bet there's going to be some noise.

According to venture capitalist Cameron Lester, a founding general partner of San Francisco-based Azure Capital Partners, he had nothing to do with a three-day tree-cutting binge last July that took place on his heavily wooded property at 120 Fox Hollow Road in Woodside. He was away on a business trip when town staff discovered the illegal timbering and called in sheriff's deputies to force the tree-cutters to stop, he said.

He and his family had sold their home in Mill Valley and planned to build their dream house in Woodside, but now, he told the Woodside Town Council at the July 12 meeting, they just want to sell the undeveloped property and move on with their lives.

"Our land is damaged, our reputation in town is damaged, our neighbors are understandably appalled," Mr. Lester said.

"We went from being excited about the process to feeling like people that had 'wanted' posters on the side of the highway," he said.

To remedy the destruction of what Planning Director Hope Sullivan estimated were about 80 significant trees, and alleviate the resulting erosion problems, the town and Mr. Lester's representatives agreed to a reforestation plan that includes planting 120 trees and 1,200 plants and shrubs.

A permit is required to remove significant trees that are larger than 30 inches in circumference when measured from 4 feet above ground, said Ms. Sullivan.

To help his family heal and move on, Mr. Lester asked the Town Council to not record a notice of code violation on the property that would "cloud the title" and possibly discourage prospective buyers. Instead, he asked the town to allow a new owner to build on the lot before planting the new trees, and offered to sign an agreement that would be backed by a bond to ensure the work would get done.

Mr. Lester said that the tree service, Mountain Man Wood Co. of La Honda, put ribbons on all the trees while he was out of town, and had promised to operate within the standards of the town of Woodside.

When asked by the council if he planned to sue Mountain Man, Mr. Lester said he didn't, as it would be "another side-track."

Herbert Klingele, the owner of Mountain Man, told the Almanac in a phone interview that Mr. Lester was the one who marked the trees, and that he believed the tree work was authorized under a permit issued to the property's seller, Tom Mudd. He was unaware of the council meeting, or he would have been there, Mr. Klingele said.

"We don't mark trees to be taken down -- that's not something we do," he said. "That's how we came up with the estimate we came up with -- by the number of trees marked by Cameron Lester."
Council action

Town Council members were sympathetic, albeit skeptical, of aspects of Mr. Lester's story. Nevertheless, on a 6-0 vote, with Joe Putnam absent, the council refused to overrule Ms. Sullivan's decision to record a code violation. Council members said they did not want any delays in reforesting the property.

"There's no animosity here. We just want this corrected," said Mayor Paul Goeld, telling the Lesters that "these issues are self-inflicted."

"People have built entire homes without permits and we've made them tear them down," Mr. Goeld said. "So it could've been worse."

Councilman Dave Tanner, a landscape contractor, estimated that the reforestation plan would cost about $200,000 and could be completed in three months.

Once the reforestation efforts are completed, the notice of code violation will be removed from the property's title, said Ms. Sullivan.

"The way the higher-rent places are selling these days, you'll have (the title) cleared up before it sells," said Mr. Tanner.

Some council members said they found it hard to believe anyone would enter into a $70,000 contract with a tree service and not specify which trees were to be cut down.

"That one is a little difficult to digest," Mr. Goeld said.

When he wanted to remove some trees on his property, Mr. Goeld said, he had to get permits from the town and provide a site map showing each tree to be removed. None of the five or six tree services he contacted would even provide an estimate until he had marked the trees, he said.

Five neighbors of the property spoke at the meeting, as well as Mr. Lester's mother-in-law, who told the council the experience had soured the family on Woodside.

Neighbor Jack Sculley told the council he saw trees being marked with orange ribbons, and saw some 100 feet tall come crashing down. Story poles, outlining the house and outbuildings the Lesters planned for the site, are located right over stumps of trees that were cut down, he said. "You make the call (as to) what you think."

Now, his property values are affected because his home looks out on a clear-cut, and there are erosion problems in the creek running through the property, Mr. Sculley said.

"I think they clouded their own title," he said.

Mr. Lester said that if neighbors hadn't alerted the town, the devastation would have been much worse.

"Nobody would be such an utter and complete fool as to buy a beautiful wooded property and cut everything down," he said. "I'd have done a better job shooting myself in the head. I'm not a stupid person, but I've never built a home before, and I trusted people."

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