Frank and Alida Freda thought they were doing a good thing when they cut down three pine trees on a commercial lot they plan to develop in San Luis Obispo. Then they got a $41,200 bill for doing it.
The Santa Barbara couple didn’t know about the city’s tree ordinance — the strictest in San Luis Obispo County — that charges four times the value of the tree cut down if an $81 tree removal permit isn’t purchased.
The Fredas are the first to face such a hefty fine since the new penalties were enacted by the city in June. Before the change, the fine was the cost of the tree.
The couple closed escrow in November on the former Midas lot at 3583 S. Higuera St. and were eager to move forward with plans to clean up the property, which had been vacant for two years, and add a second commercial building toward the back of the lot.
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A small encampment of homeless people had been created in the back of the property while it was vacant, and within a week of escrow closing the couple had hired someone to clear out the area of shrubs, litter and other accumulated waste, Alida Freda said. They also hired a friend to cut down the three pine trees toward the back of the lot where they planned to eventually construct the other commercial building. Also cut down was a Brisbane box tree that was leaning into the back of the existing building.
The city received a complaint from a concerned citizen and Keith Pellemeier, the city’s urban forest supervisor, notified the Fredas that they had violated the tree preservation ordinance by cutting down the trees without a proper removal permit or approved building plans.
The trees were estimated at a total cost of $5,150.The city then fined the Fredas $20,600 — four times the value of the trees. In addition, as stipulated by the ordinance, the city fined Willie Cook of Templeton, their helper, another $20,600.
The couple was shocked at the fine levied, saying they had never been notified about the tree ordinance despite multiple exchanges with the city’s Community Development Department.
They then met with Pellemeier to try to remedy the situation by offering to plant up to six trees along the frontage road. The city then asked them to plant 12 trees along the front of the property and pay to water them for five years, Freda said. The city also asked that Cook plant 12 trees behind the property.
At that point the couple decided things had gone too far.
They notified Pellemeier that they would not accept the proposal and would only be willing to plant 12 trees, install drip irrigation and pay for the water for two growing seasons — but only if Cook was released from all obligations.
An agreement couldn’t be reached, and an appeal is scheduled to be heard by the city’s five-person tree committee tonight. The meeting will start at 5 p.m. and be held at the Corporation Yard Conference Room, 25 Prado Road.
“We feel we did nothing wrong, and at this point we feel intimidated and harassed,” Alida Freda said.
The couple will ask that the fines be removed and that they be able to move forward with their planned project at the site.