It was more than a slap on the wrist, but not the right to the jaw that it could have been.
After a searching discussion, the Woodside Town Council, in a unanimous vote on Tuesday, Sept. 8, agreed to levy a fine of $10,000 on residents Dr. Eric and Jacquie Weiss. Their violation: authorizing the felling of 10 significant Coast Live Oak trees on a Sand Hill Road property they own without having first gotten a tree-cutting permit, a $60 item.
The penalty also requires that they obtain a permit and finish up the thinning activities at the site. Since the council needs a formal resolution for this action, one will be provided for an up-or-down vote at the Sept. 22 meeting, Town Manager Susan George said.
The 5-0 vote did not include Councilwoman Deborah Gordon, who recused herself in part because the Weiss' property is leased from Stanford University, where she works. Mayor Peter Mason was away.
Dr. Weiss directs The Village Doctor medical clinic in town. "I'm the person who misstepped and neglected to ask for a permit," he told the council in a bid for leniency. He had reason to ask. Had the council gone by the book, the fine could have been $92,500.
Ms. Weiss spoke next and noted that the mature trees in the area "made (the ones they felled) kind of look like weeds at the time. It seemed like the right thing to do, only now I realize that it wasn't."
The couple had hired an arborist for a walk-through to advise them on how to care for their 35 significant trees, Dr. Weiss said, adding that he mistakenly assumed that a tree was significant if it measured 12-inches in diameter at 48 inches above ground, not the 9.5 inches the town specifies.
Their intent, given Woodside's equestrian culture, was to restore a horse corral area that had become overgrown, Dr. Weiss said.
San Mateo arborist Kevin Kielty testified to the council at the request of the town as to the appropriateness of the thinning that did take place. The trees that were cut showed evidence of having grown haphazardly, he said.
"I do believe that the thinning of the woodland there will improve the tone of the larger trees there," he said. "For a non-professional, they did a fairly good job of selecting trees."
During the public comment period, several residents spoke admiringly of Dr. Weiss' character and asked the council for leniency.
Councilman Dave Tanner, a general contractor, agreed that the thinning had been well done. The fine, he said, should reflect the fine for not having a building permit: three times the cost of the permit, so $180. "It's not as if they were (illegally) building a house or anything," he said.
Not good enough, Councilman Ron Romines said. The intent of the town's tree-protection ordinance "doesn't change by the character of the person who removed the trees," he said. A significant fine is appropriate, but not the maximum, given that the thinning was well intended.
Considering the $21,700 estimate to replace the trees, Mayor Dave Burow suggested a fine of about half that, at $10,000. No fine at all would set a bad precedent, he added.
Councilwoman Sue Boynton initially opposed a fine. It would be inconsistent, she said, with a (2007) council decision to suspend a staff-recommended fine for a tree-conscious property owner who, unaware that he needed a permit, had moved three significant oak trees to Atherton.
That case was one of a total of perhaps two in which the council has had to apply the ordinance, and it occurred when the ordinance was "young," Ms. Boynton said in an interview.
"It becomes arbitrary," she told her colleagues. "I think we're holding fast to being consistent when we haven't been consistent so far."
Deciding to support a $10,000 fine was a struggle, Ms. Boynton told The Almanac. The case pits community rights against those of a property owner who had apparently acted in the best interest of the remaining trees. "I felt, at the end, that I needed to recognize both situations," she said.
The ordinance needs tweaking, she added, to ensure that fines are commensurate with the impact on the environment.