An official letter to a post office box is how Woodside Town Hall will initiate seeking payment of a $212,500 fine assessed on Rudolph Koppl for the premature felling of 22 large trees on a vacant 3.2-acre lot Mr. Koppl once owned at 205 Mountain Wood Lane, according to the town manager.
Mr. Koppl is listed as the applicant on a July 2015 application for a permit to cut down 228 of the 287 trees on the property. The permit was in process when the town learned of the downed trees: 14 bay laurels, seven coast live oaks and a madrone, according to a staff report.
The Town Council, responding on June 14 to an appeal of the penalty in a public hearing, voted 6-0, with Councilman Peter Mason absent, to impose the fine using the formula in the municipal code: $5,000 for the first "significant" tree cut without a permit, $7,500 for the second, and $10,000 for each subsequent tree.
A tree's significance depends on its species. Native trees, including live oaks, bays and madrones, become significant when they measure more than 9.5 inches in diameter at 4 feet above the ground.
In past appeals over illegally cut trees six since 2009 the council has lowered the fine, sometimes dramatically, after hearing the applicants claim ignorance of the process. Twice in 2014 and once in 2013, the council halved the fine. On the other three occasions, the fine was no more than 10 percent of what the code called for.
No one claimed ignorance in this case. While it's not clear when the trees were felled during the 18 months of ownership by Mr. Koppl's company, Quinta Properties LLC the property was sold in June 2016 Mr. Koppl, through his lawyer, admitted to taking down the trees.
"We're not here to contest the matter," Palo Alto attorney John Paul Hanna told the council. "The code was violated by the premature removal of trees. ... Our aim here is to talk about what the appropriate penalty should be."
That the permit had been applied for in July 2015 and was still in process was a consequence of the potential impact of cutting down 228 trees, according to staff. The Architectural and Site Review Board was to review the application, and it required a biological assessment, including photos and justifications for proposed actions.
In his appeal, Mr. Koppl said that "many of the live trees succumbed to Sudden Oak Death and fell on their own," a claim not substantiated in an arborist's report, according to the staff report.
Mr. Koppl also claimed a need to establish emergency access, and to remove trees "positioned ... to fall," but staff countered, in the report, that these were matters that could have been resolved in the permitting process.
Mr. Koppl did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Mr. Hanna, accompanied at the hearing by a civil engineer and an arborist, calculated a "value" for the 22 trees of $59,835, trees he described as in "very poor" condition in a "densely forested" area. Some had a value of less than $1,000, he said.
The area had been replanted, Mr. Hanna added, with two maples and 58 redwood trees, including irrigation systems, at a total cost of $25,000. Subtracting those costs from the "value" of the trees left $34,835, an appropriate fine, he said.
The council was having none of Mr. Hanna's argument.
"The law is the law," Councilman Tom Livermore said. "It's not about value. It's about deterrence."
"You can't ask for forgiveness rather than permission," said Councilman Chris Shaw. The fine "really does come down as a deterrent. The point is that we got 90 percent of the way there and somebody went nuts."
Councilwoman Anne Kasten said she was having a hard time excusing the actions, given that the permitting process was underway.
Councilman Dave Tanner described the situation as "one of those things that I think somebody got way ahead of themselves, way ahead. I'm all for the fine this time."
Trees are living organisms, and it's taken a long time for them to grow, he said. The felling has "completely changed the personality" of the lot, through which he said he rides his horse. "You've taken away 30, 40, 50, 100 years of time," he said. "That lot is going to go through a huge adjustment."
In an interview, Mr. Tanner elaborated. In addition to the trees listed, which were located on a panhandle, the cutting continued in an area suitable for construction. "They clear cut a space for a house," including trees that blocked a view and trees that shielded a neighbor's house, Mr. Tanner said.
"It's just like, 'How do you replace it. How do you replace 50 years? How do you replace 100 years? There are trees and they've mis-grown, OK? But they've created their own world in there," he said. "It needed proper planning by someone who knows what they're doing. .... Everybody thinks, 'Ah, it's just a damn tree. (Woodside) is all about the trees. It's all about the woods."