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SLO County oak tree policies again up for consideration after past failures

A day in the life of a valley oak

A few moments in the life of a valley oak tree on Vineyard Drive, north of Highway 46, in the North County.
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A few moments in the life of a valley oak tree on Vineyard Drive, north of Highway 46, in the North County.

Oak trees and California’s Central Coast have had a long, sometimes tumultuous history. Known for their ability to survive the region’s dry conditions, these native trees add touches of green to the state’s rolling golden hills and serve as wildlife habitats for numerous species.

Given the right conditions, oak trees can have memories longer than any person — able to live for hundreds of years, their leafy canopies and thick trunks remain even as the land around them changes.

Humans, on the other hand, are more fickle.

Policymakers in San Luis Obispo County have only sporadically considered protections for oak trees and, although cities such as Paso Robles have regulations, no ordinance exists to prevent oak removals in unincorporated agricultural areas. Over the years, the issue has typically come to the forefront only in the face of public outrage over mass oak removals.

Most recently, North County residents were shaken by Estate Vineyards LLC’s removal of hundreds of oak trees on a 315-acre parcel at 750 Sleepy Farm Road, west of Paso Robles. Estate Vineyards, a subsidiary of the multinational Wonderful Company, came under fire after neighbors complained about the work, which included construction of a large water-storage pond. Estate Vineyards plans to develop the land for Justin Vineyards & Winery, one of Wonderful’s brands.

San Luis Obispo County officials issued a stop-work order June 9, but they are evaluating potential penalties only for grading violations, not tree removal, county officials say. A protest petition with hundreds of signatures will be presented to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors at their meeting Tuesday.

In the wake of Estate Vineyards’ action, county supervisors Debbie Arnold and Frank Mecham, who represent the North County, have said they expect to call for drafting an oak protection policy, possibly using ordinances from neighboring counties for guidance.

Santa Barbara and Monterey counties have policies in place that protect oaks to varying degrees. At the very least, they require landowners seeking to remove large numbers of trees to apply for permits and have their plans approved.

A draft ordinance wouldn’t come before the county supervisors until August, because the board has a full July schedule and the staff needs time to prepare a draft, officials said.

But one is sorely needed, said Devin Best, executive director of the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District. The district also issued a stop-work order for the Estate Vineyards’ work, saying the company violated several regulations, including failing to notify the agency of tree removal so surveys for nesting birds could be done.

“Without something in place, we’re left open to a lot of different interpretations of county codes,” Best said.

Historic oak protection policies

The county Board of Supervisors came close to cementing an oak tree protection ordinance about 20 years ago, prompted by oak removals by winery owners near Paso Robles in 1996.

But supervisors couldn’t agree on rules they felt protected landowners’ rights while also preventing the destruction of large numbers of oaks. Instead, the board approved a voluntary resolution that encouraged farmers to maintain native trees and replant new ones as needed.

The topic was revisited in 2006, when a civil grand jury — which convened after a large oak tree was removed near Templeton in 2005 to make room for a road — ruled that existing protections were inadequate. But the board again chose not to take action, citing the cost of creating and enforcing an ordinance.

Now, in light of the recent mass oak removal, Arnold and Mecham are encouraging the board to look again at crafting a set of protections. Both are in favor of what Arnold called “common sense management,” which would prevent large-scale removals but allow diseased or hazardous trees to be taken out.

Mecham said he wanted an ordinance that would “preclude (Estate Vineyards’ removal) from ever happening again.”

Nearby oak ordinances

Although San Luis Obispo County has no laws protecting oak trees, neighboring counties have ordinances designed to prevent wholesale cutting.

Tree protection rules in Santa Barbara and Monterey counties include directives on how many oaks can be cut down in a given area and how many trees must be planted as replacements.

Santa Barbara County’s ordinance was enacted in 2003 and was drafted after the owners of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens in the late ’90s was permitted to remove more than 800 oaks near Los Alamos Valley to make room for its vineyard operation. The ensuing battle between landowners and conservationists garnered national attention, prompting coverage from The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The rules the county eventually put in place allow agricultural landowners to remove a certain number of trees without a permit based on the site’s total acreage. For example, on a 400- to 450-acre site, a landowner is allowed to remove up to 74 trees without a permit. Once permits are required, landowners must replant one tree for every 15 cut down.

Landowners are allowed to remove trees that are naturally dead or uprooted or pose a safety hazard without applying for a permit.

Monterey County’s ordinance is less specific but still provides significant protections for trees on land used for agriculture. Any landowner who wants to cut down more than three trees must apply for a permit.

It’s not as if you’re starting from scratch. At the same time, you need really good direction.

Jim Bergman, director of

The only agricultural exemptions apply to improving rangeland, promoting a wildlife habitat, enhancing a watershed area, eliminating trees hazardous to life or property and chopping firewood for landowners’ use.

Landowners converting a site for use as farmland must submit any tree removal plans as part of their permit application. Trees must be replaced on a one-to-one basis.

When discussing which county ordinances San Luis Obispo County supervisors might consider when drafting new rules, Mecham mentioned Sonoma County.

That county’s tree ordinance is the least specific of the three but provides protection for trees under its agricultural guidelines. Landowners who want to remove trees and “other vegetation” for orchard or vineyard development must create plans for removal and replanting and have them approved by county officials. Valley oak habitats have their own removal and replanting guidelines.

Jim Bergman, director of SLO County Planning and Building, said his staff is waiting for direction from county supervisors before they begin crafting an ordinance. County officials are still investigating the Estate Vineyards incident, he said. When staff begins drafting an ordinance, they’ll look at previous drafts developed by the county, along with those used in other counties.

“It’s not as if you’re starting from scratch,” Bergman said. “At the same time, you need really good direction.”

The importance of California oaks

Environmental advocates said it was important to protect oak trees because of the role they play in the Central Coast’s ecosystem and the natural benefits they provide. Best, the Resource Conservation District director, said oaks help maintain soil stability and retain water.

“They’re important for both agriculture as well as wildlife species,” Best said.

Species of deer, small mammals, turkeys and other birds rely on oak trees for shelter and other purposes.

Regrowing oaks that reach full maturity has been a challenge, resulting in an abundance of older trees and saplings, but few middle-aged trees, Best said. Landowners and residents must ultimately decide what they want their future landscape to look like, he said.

Gregory Ellis is the director of One Cool Earth, a San Luis Obispo-based nonprofit that’s known for planting oaks, which he called “an iconic tree of California.” Protection ordinances need to be crafted in such a way that they prevent removals and encourage replanting in the same area, Ellis said.

“They are a part of the cultural history of this area,” he said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

Tree removal policies by county

  • Santa Barbara County: Allows agricultural landowners to remove a certain number of trees without a permit based on the site’s total acreage. When permits are required, landowners must replant one tree for every 15 they cut down. Landowners are allowed to remove trees that are naturally dead or uprooted or pose a safety hazard without applying for a permit.
  • Monterey County: Any landowner who wants to cut down more than three trees must apply for a permit. The only agricultural exemptions apply to improving rangeland, promoting a wildlife habitat, enhancing a watershed area, eliminating trees hazardous to life or property and chopping firewood for landowners’ use. Landowners converting a site for use as farmland must submit any tree removal plans as part of their permit application. Trees must be replanted on a one-to-one basis.
  • Sonoma County: Landowners who want to remove trees and “other vegetation” for orchard or vineyard development must create plans for removal and replanting and have them approved by county officials. Valley oak habitats have their own removal and replanting guidelines.
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