News

Woodside: Man fined $212K for cutting down mature trees

 

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.

Council responds

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."

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Comments

17 people like this
Posted by Beth
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 15, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Way to govern, Woodside - you represent a worthy,respectable entity. And you showed integrity by your actions, listening to your constituency and upholding the basic beauty of your town.

It's interesting that Koppl no longer owns the property that was sold (finalized?) in June, 2016. Does this affect the fine or was this tree-felling party a real estate contract condition between the seller-buyer? If so, who's responsible?

It's hard to imagine someone felling trees on property he's not planning to inhabit. But figures if he's trying to sell? Did the buyer know this was going to happen, via legal papers or verbal agreement? If so, Woodside needs to put a stop to that practice.


25 people like this
Posted by Ginia
a resident of another community
on Jun 15, 2016 at 12:59 pm

Congrats Woodside Town Council - maybe this will slow the attitude of the "nouveau riche" in town - "cut down or break the rules now and ask questions later", then pay the "little" fine!!!


16 people like this
Posted by Samia
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 15, 2016 at 1:40 pm

Well done, Woodside! Great comments by the councilmen and women, especially by Mr. Tanner.


15 people like this
Posted by Chop 'em Down
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 15, 2016 at 2:01 pm

It is time for the Town of Woodside to dis-incorporate, and hand over the building, planning, and architectural review to the County of San Mateo. We are needlessly wasting money on duplication of basic planning and building services (and doing so in a horribly inefficient manner). Woodside spends far too much time interfering with property owners' land and life styles. If an owner wants to take down trees on their own property, they should be allowed to do so at their discretion. Fining a homeowner almost a quarter million dollars for tree removal is absurd. The Town relishes developing ridiculous laws that infringe on property owners' rights.

Disincorporation would provide a much more enjoyable experience for Woodside residents with Building and Planning, and review processes, and would reduce the absurd costs, delays, and pathetic so-called service to our community. Very few residents would miss the current Town Staff.


8 people like this
Posted by Prop Rights
a resident of another community
on Jun 15, 2016 at 4:59 pm

We must control our citizens and show them who is boss. People can't be allowed to decide what to do with the own property. This person must be taught a lesson, and used as an example to keep others in line!


29 people like this
Posted by 11 months ?!?!?!!
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 15, 2016 at 5:04 pm

This person applied for a permit in July 2015, and still did not have a decision and therefore cut down trees in May 2016.

Who thinks waiting 11+ months for a review process is ok?

He should not have cut them down, but the town should not take a year, keeping the property owner waiting. That is truly ridiculous.



9 people like this
Posted by Liab
a resident of another community
on Jun 15, 2016 at 5:20 pm

What would happen if a tree came down and hurt someone during the 11 month review process? Would the town be liable?


14 people like this
Posted by put up a parking lot
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jun 15, 2016 at 6:21 pm

cut em all down and put up a parking lot!

Hey, it worked in Ohio......


(drops mic)


12 people like this
Posted by Glad I am out
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 15, 2016 at 6:39 pm

11 months..no answer typical town "rope a dope" Stall, stall, stall. Its a disgrace. So many dirty little secrets in planning, especially regarding sewer vs septic for the SOLE purpose of keeping people from putting a home on their own land. Ask and you will be stonewalled and blackballed. Grand Juries agree, the Town planning mafia is impeachable going back to and including Susan George. She is gone, the dirty secrets live on.


4 people like this
Posted by Rick
a resident of Woodside: Family Farm/Hidden Valley
on Jun 15, 2016 at 6:55 pm

Kudos, Woodside Town Council! You surprised me by standing your ground. I can only hope that you have the courage to make your decision stick. But since the Council doesn't have a very good track record in such things, I'm not celebrating a victory for Woodside's arboreal environment just yet. Please hang tough!!!

But even though I'm no fan of Town Hall, I have to take issue with the "11 month" complaint mentioned above. I served on both the ASRB and the PC. While doing so I regularly got to watch the Council and Planning department from up close. The result was that I came away disillusioned by what seemed to me to be their frequent less than stellar performances. Nevertheless, long drawn-out delays in securing Town approval for projects more often than not were largely due to applicants themselves dragging their feet. So without evidence to the contrary, I wouldn't lay all the blame at Town Hall's doormat.


1 person likes this
Posted by Rick2
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 15, 2016 at 7:05 pm

Not to argue with Rick, but if you actually LOOK at the calendar, and the number of cancelled meetings and recesses, etc. You can easily see how it creates long delays by its very nature. MY experience was that the delays were be shifting, unclear, and inconsistent burdens placed on the property owners, and even more by politics driven by neighbors, etc.......hardly "dragging their feet"
BTW, I am a former Planning Commissioner in a larger, but still rural community. So I do know the difference.


8 people like this
Posted by JR
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 15, 2016 at 7:19 pm

Most people commenting don't have the facts about this lot or what was done. Cutting the trees down was all about flipping a vacant piece of land for a profit (205 Mountain Wood Ln.). It is a difficult site to build on and access and without cutting down the trees the owner, who had zero intent to build on it, might not have been able to sell it at a profit. He had just purchased it less than a year earlier. It was said he cut down a lot trees than he wasn't fined for. It could have been a bigger number on the fine. The irony is that he is way ahead even after paying the fine given he was able to sell the lot for a million dollar profit in a year (less costs). So nobody should feel bad for him. In fact, quite the opposite.

The Town Council did the right thing. In fact, I don't believe they really got the financial motivation behind what he did. What if he would have waited for the decision and been denied (that was very possible since he was not building on the site), then what? Does he go ahead and start cutting now? He made a calculated decision, lost but still wins. One of the council members even suggested that it is no certainty that the fire department would allow the driveway he cut the trees to get. I wonder if the new owner has recourse if he can't build.

Also, people are talking about how long the process took. You have to see the extent and complexity of what he was asking for to see just how difficult a task the Town was asked to take on. And once again, Koppl was not looking to build on the lot. He had no building plans, and now it is obvious it was just a flip. There are many additional details about the unique situation here.


5 people like this
Posted by Quinta Properties LLC
a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Jun 15, 2016 at 8:28 pm

If Town Attorney Savaree and her son Kyle Reuss have direction from council to collect on this fine.....they need to quickly lean the perpetrator Koppls dba and get the Secretary of State to suspend the perps LLC Quinta Properties from an "in good standing" status and immediately petition the SM Co Superior Court to issue a judgment lien against Koppl and any Quinta Properties assets.
Otherwise Koppl is likely to " thumb his nose" at the Town Council...and Town will have no leverage to collect a dime from this notorious scofflaw


4 people like this
Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 15, 2016 at 8:38 pm

pogo is a registered user.

People are conflating two different issues.

The permitting process for cutting down trees in Woodside is pretty straightforward. In the past, people have cut down trees and when caught, feigned ignorance and begged forgiveness. This strategy was often successful. For that reason, the Town Council instituted a progressive fine schedule. This homeowner knew about permitting and the fines, blatantly disregarded them and paid the price. Kudos to the Town Council for upholding the fine.

The other issue is our permitting and approval process for building and modifying residences. Simply put, Woodside's process is lacking in predictability and fairness. Our last election demonstrated the fact that citizens want change and that is something the Town Council is actively addressing.

I am proud of our Town Council and hope they will continue to make progress on these important issues that impact so many of us.


2 people like this
Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 15, 2016 at 8:55 pm

pogo is a registered user.

If a property owner doesn't pay a fine, you simply place a lien on the property. It cannot be sold without the fine being paid. If a potential liability (fine) isn't disclosed to a new owner, they can sue the former owner for fraud if they wish.

The Town will ultimately get its money.


4 people like this
Posted by Pogo too pokey to force quick payment
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Jun 15, 2016 at 9:16 pm

Cmon Pogo, Any experienced collection attorney and Chief Title Officer at any Title Company will tell you that the lien on the property against former owner is dead end rookie lawyer approach....easily ignored and will get dismissed as "too late", Not a cloud on title against current owner.
"Potential liability"? Not disclosed by seller? Sounds like 1st year law student approach :(
Start thinking out of the box....or you put the Town Council and Town Attorney as hapless paper tigers.
This is quite straightforward egregious flaunting of Town Ordinances re Tree Removal Permitting process that obviates focused collection efforts by our highly paid Town Attorney with assistance from seasoned professionals...County and State officials as well..that will clearly send a message that any property owner/developer/realtor/business owner can't just be cavalier with our carefully crafted and legally enforceable Town Ordinances that are a natural evolution of the Towns original 1956 incorporation to give greater protections than the casual SM Co unincorporated tree protection ordinances


2 people like this
Posted by Ethan
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Jun 16, 2016 at 2:14 pm

Ethan is a registered user.

If the speculator was in collusion with the eventual buyer and cut down the trees as part of a deal specifically aimed at breaking the law, doesn't this warrant some sort of legal charge in addition to the fine? Perhaps the town officials should ask their attorney whether further action is warranted, to help discourage future abuses.


3 people like this
Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 16, 2016 at 4:28 pm

pogo is a registered user.

Pokey -

Actually, liens is one way we legally collect fines. If someone doesn't pay, you simply place a lien on their home. This isn't the stuff of first year law - it's actually the principal job of the San Mateo County Tax Recorder and it happens every single day. The Town of Woodside ROUTINELY files liens on property for unpaid taxes, fees, fines, etc. No bank or title insurance company will transfer or insure an encumbered title - EVER.

Eventually, it gets paid.


10 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 16, 2016 at 4:54 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

pogo:

you can't lien a property unless the debt owed is by the property owner. Koppl doesn't own this property anymore. Filing a lien will not get Woodside paid. The current owner can get the lien quashed because it isn't for a debt he owes. They CAN lien another piece of property Koppl owns however.


Like this comment
Posted by skeare
a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Jul 28, 2016 at 3:52 pm

skeare is a registered user.

while I commend the town, this owner was able to make a million dollar profit on this property in one year, partly by clearing space for a driveway and residence by taking down so many trees. They will need to figure out if the current rules will dissuade people in the climate of such high property prices ...


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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