A group trying to preserve its neighborhood's tree canopy won a partial victory Tuesday, July 26, as the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors agreed to fast-track major changes to the laws that protect trees in unincorporated county areas, but stopped short of passing the emergency ordinance Menlo Oaks residents had asked for.
Residents of Menlo Oaks, an unincorporated Menlo Park neighborhood east of Middlefield Road and north of Willow Road, had asked San Mateo County to pass emergency rules to protect their neighborhood's namesake oak trees, which they say have been disappearing at an alarming rate.
All five of the supervisors agreed something should be done. But, after hearing from Steve Monowitz, director of the county's planning and building department, that putting a moratorium on removing trees in the Menlo Oaks neighborhood would tie the county's hands in issuing permits for projects in the area, the supervisors instead asked for some "fast-track" changes in the tree regulations.
Supervisors asked to have the fines increased for not following the tree-protection rules. They also asked to have the county hire a staff arborist instead of allowing applicants to pay their own arborists for reports.
Supervisor Dave Pine suggested fines be increased to be closer to those in towns such as Woodside. "Once a tree is down, that's a big problem," he said. "A hundred-year (old) tree, you can't really replace it."
"I think we need to hire an arborist," Supervisor Carole Groom said. "If we hire our own, he has to follow our rules because he works for us," she said, adding that the arborist could well be a "she."
Supervisor Warren Slocum suggested the county might look into fining the companies that cut down the trees without permits instead of the property owner. County attorney John Beiers said he would look into the legality of such fines, which he called "a creative idea and worthwhile to explore."
Supervisor Don Horsley suggested the county solicit the help of the Sheriff's Office to respond to complaints on weekends. "We do get reports," he said. "They can hear chainsaws going on a Saturday -- the tree is gone."
Neighbors who spoke at the meeting continued to urge immediate action. Janet Weisman-Goff said that there are several properties in the neighborhood that have recently been sold, including one with a grove of large redwood trees, that could soon be the subject of proposed development.
"We need protection now," she said.
Mr. Beiers said he thought he could work with the planning and building department on ordinance changes that could be brought back to the board as soon as September.
County Manager John Maltbie said the position of a county arborist, that might be shared between the parks and planning and building departments, can be included in the September budget discussions as well.
After the meeting, Judy Horst, one of the Menlo Oaks neighbors who has led the efforts to preserve the neighborhood's tree canopy, said the neighbors appreciate the supervisors' concerns and questions "about the changes needed to stop the unnecessary removal" of trees.
While the neighbors would have preferred changes that went into effect immediately, "we like the new more environmentally sound and community-sensitive direction the county is moving in," she said.
Mr. Monowitz said the county is also working on other changes in the tree ordinance that will be brought back later, including streamlining the process for removing non-native invasive tree species. The complete revamping of the tree regulations will probably take a year, he said, and involve residents of many of the unincorporated neighborhoods.
● Contact the tree advocacy group through its website.
● See the staff reports and other information on the Menlo Oaks residents' request for an emergency ordinance on the county's website.
● See an earlier Almanac story on the Menlo Oaks residents' request that the county save their oaks.