SLO County supervisors to consider permanent oak protection ordinance

The Justin Vineyards and Winery property in June 2016, after thousands of trees were removed from its hillsides.
The Justin Vineyards and Winery property in June 2016, after thousands of trees were removed from its hillsides. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Oak woodlands in San Luis Obispo County may be officially protected Tuesday, nearly a year after Justin Vineyards and Winery clear-cut thousands of oak trees in Paso Robles, sparking a public outcry over preserving the region’s natural resources.

The county Board of Supervisors will vote on a permanent oak woodland ordinance, which would limit how many trees landowners can cut down without county permits.

The new rules would replace an urgency ordinance supervisors passed in July and extended in August after Justin Vineyards clear-cut oak trees on a property west of Paso Robles in June. The county and the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, which granted the company a grading permit, issued stop-work orders after the tree removal and grading on steep hillsides were discovered.

Justin Vineyards, owned by the multinational Wonderful Co., later apologized for the clear-cutting and has since pledged to donate the land to a nonprofit organization. But residents began a boycott of Wonderful Co. products and pushed the Board of Supervisors for tighter oak woodland protections.

The rules that supervisors will consider are, in some cases, stricter than the initial protections, which allowed agricultural landowners to remove up to 5 percent of their oak canopies without consulting the county. The proposed ordinance no longer contains that exception.

“We specifically defined clear-cutting as more than 1 acre,” said Megan Martin, a county planner.

Instead, it would allow landowners to remove up to 1 acre of oak trees without applying for a permit or creating an oak woodland management plan.

Other rules include:

▪  Those who want to remove more than 1 acre would either need to submit a management plan to county staff or get a permit. Under a management plan, landowners could only remove up to 5 percent of the oak woodlands on their properties.

Those who want to remove more than 3 acres of oak woodlands during a 10-year period would be required to apply for a conditional-use permit, which calls for a public hearing.

▪  Woodland thinning and removal of diseased trees would be allowed.

Martin said planners assumed that large-scale oak tree removals would precede a change in land use, and neighboring residents might want a voice in that process.

“The intent was to have public input on the conversion of land,” she said.

The Board of Supervisors will meet 9 a.m. Tuesday in the County Government Building, 1055 Monterey St., in San Luis Obispo.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27