After untold hours of debate, the town of Woodside finally will have an ordinance to protect its namesake trees.
Although there is general agreement on the Woodside Town Council that the town needs a clear set of rules governing tree removal and protecting significant trees, council members have been wrangling with the town's Conservation and Environmental Health Committee over the proposed ordinance's details.
At the Nov. 14 council meeting, the resolute committee members finally convinced the council to see things their way, and their favored version of the ordinance passed 7-0.
The ordinance singles out 14 native tree species for special protection, and imposes stiff fines on scofflaws who remove or kill trees without permits.
Most of the dispute boiled down to the definition of a "significant tree."
Dead, dangerous, and non-native trees such as eucalyptus may be removed with little fuss, but property owners are going to need a darn good reason for wanting to remove a healthy "significant" tree. The ordinance, which won't go into effect for another two months, makes exceptions for thinning trees, fire safety or tree removal associated with a building or grading permit.
Town staff, Mayor Deborah Gordon and Councilman Pete Sinclair supported the "one-size-fits-all" version of the ordinance, with any tree measuring 30 inches in circumference at chest height becoming a "significant tree." They said it would be easier to enforce and easier for people to understand.
But conservation committee members lobbied hard to create a separate category for some slow-growing native trees such as the blue oak, which would become significant when they achieved 24 inches in circumference. Committee member Stephanie MacDonald argued that the health of Woodside's ecosystem would benefit by protecting native species when they are reproductively active. She used herself to illustrate the concept.
"I'm reaching my reproductively latent period. Do you only want to protect species like me, or to preserve reproductively active 20-year-olds?" Ms. McDonald asked, as council members burst out laughing. "It doesn't make sense."
Ms. MacDonald showed samples of Web pages that could help residents identify protected native tree species and provide one-stop information shopping for residents seeking a tree removal permit.
"We don't have people clear-cutting smaller trees," said Mr. Sinclair. "We're fixing a problem that doesn't exist."
Mr. Sinclair argued that residents couldn't be expected to identify various tree species and would have to hire experts to do it for them.
Committee member Debbie Mendelson took issue with Mr. Sinclair's reasoning.
"I'm not cutting down a tree on my property if it's dead," she said. "I'm hiring a tree company with professionals whose job it is to know what kind of tree it is."
Rob Flint said the council needed to give up the idea that the value of a tree is dependent on its size. "It's dependent on the species," he said.
"Woodside has the best trees on the Peninsula, and the point of the ordinance is to keep it that way," Mr. Flint said.
Committee members argued that their version was less onerous, because it singles out only 14 native tree species for protection at smaller circumferences — half at 24 inches and half at 30 inches — and sets a larger circumference of 36 inches for all other "significant" trees.
Apparently, once council members agreed that blue oak trees needed to be singled out for protection at a smaller circumference, momentum shifted in favor of the conservation committee's point of view.
Councilman Dave Tanner, a landscape contractor, said that if the town could protect blue oaks, it could protect other species as well.
"Each tree is not the same as every other tree," Mr. Tanner said. "It's like separating out short people from tall people."
Mr. Sinclair pointed out that he and Mayor Gordon, who made up the council subcommittee, and conservation committee members agreed on 99 percent of the ordinance, and had brought only a small area of dispute before the council.
"The values represented by trees here monumentally outweigh the relatively small additional difficulty," said Councilman Ron Romines.
The council must vote again next month to adopt the ordinance, which would then take effect 30 days later.
Key points in Woodside's new tree protection ordinance:
• "Tree destruction" permits will be required for all tree removal.
• The size of a significant tree varies, from a 24-inch circumference for seven slow-growing native species, 30-inch circumference for seven faster growing natives, and 36-inch circumference for other trees.
For information about the new tree protection ordinance, call 851-6790 or go online at WoodsideTown.org. Click on "Town Government" and then on "Town Council" and call up the agenda for the Nov. 14 meeting.