Tree protection, ag pond ordinances head to SLO County supervisors

Mature oak trees along Vineyard Road near Willow Creek Road a few miles away from the site of the Justin Vineyard clearcut.
Mature oak trees along Vineyard Road near Willow Creek Road a few miles away from the site of the Justin Vineyard clearcut. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors will consider draft emergency ordinances Friday to temporarily regulate agricultural ponds and native tree removal while more permanent rules are drafted.

The proposed ordinances were drafted in response to public outrage over Justin Vineyards and Winery’s clear-cutting of thousands of oak trees and grading steep slopes to create a reservoir at a North County property. Justin also violated county regulations that prohibit grading on slopes greater than 30 percent.

At a June 21 supervisors’ meeting, environmentalists, farmers and residents expressed their concerns for more than an hour before the board voted unanimously to direct its staff to draft the urgency regulations and bring them back in three weeks for a vote. The audience applauded the vote.

If approved Friday, the emergency ordinances will take effect immediately and remain in place for 45 days, although supervisors could vote to extend them to nearly two years.

San Luis Obispo County doesn’t have any rules protecting native trees in unincorporated inland areas. Although neighboring Monterey and Santa Barbara counties have protections in place, previous attempts to pass an ordinance in San Luis Obispo County have failed.

Agricultural ponds and reservoirs are regulated through grading permits, but they’re approved administratively and don’t require public hearings or notification of neighbors.

Native tree protections

The emergency tree ordinance would protect nine types of native trees, including five varieties of oak. Tree removal without a permit would be prohibited except in the case of an emergency, immediate danger, disease and other situations. Clear-cutting would be prohibited.

Agricultural landowners would be exempted and allowed to remove up to 5 percent of their site’s total canopy without a permit, although they would have to file a removal form with the county.

Permitted removals would be based on the size of existing canopies, which would be measured using aerial photos taken by the county.

In association with existing permits, small-scale removals of up to three trees would be allowed on sites of 5 acres or smaller. Landowners conducting agricultural operations, including grazing and crop production, at the time the ordinance is adopted could remove up to three trees, if necessary.

Projects involving the removal of up to 10 percent of the site’s total canopy would need a minor use permit, which is determined administratively. Landowners looking to remove more than 10 percent of their canopy would need a conditional use permit, and must come before the county’s Planning Commission. No more than 25 percent of the site’s canopy could be removed.

Those who violate the ordinance would be subject to penalties of up to $25,000 per violation and would not be allowed to develop the site for at least seven years.

Agricultural ponds and reservoirs

Agricultural ponds and reservoirs with storage capacities of more than 5 acre-feet — about 1,629,257 gallons of water — would require a minor use permit. Those greater than 5 acre-feet would require a conditional use permit. The pond Justin workers were given a grading permit to build was 20 acre-feet, according to county planners. It would have held 6,517,028 gallons of water.

(An acre-foot generally serves about three households per year.)

In order to obtain a pond or reservoir permit, landowners must provide a description of the pond’s future agricultural use, information about the past use of water on the property and proposed use of water after the pond’s construction.

The application also must include an estimate of how much water would be lost to evaporation, along with an analysis of how increased groundwater pumping would affect neighboring wells.

Landowners with projects in a groundwater basin would be required to offset evaporative water loss at a 1-to-1 ratio. Other water offsets would be determined on a case-by-case basis.

All water stored in a pond or reservoir would need to be used on-site.

Crafting the ordinances

Jim Bergman, director of the county’s planning and building department, said the emergency ordinances were purposely drafted with future revisions in mind. After supervisors consider the ordinances Friday, staff will receive direction regarding the creation of permanent regulations, he said.

In drafting the emergency ordinances, staff focused on allowing for “reasonable exemptions” that would allow landowners to continue using their properties, Bergman said.

Megan Martin, a county planner who worked on the native tree ordinance, said staff cooperated with a number of other groups, including the Agricultural Commissioner and Cal Fire, and “really pulled together” to craft the emergency rules quickly.

Kim Routh, a farmer and rancher in the Adelaida region, said in an email she thinks “the ordinance is well written and takes into consideration many important variables.”

Even so, she said, properties in violation of the ordinance should not be allowed to develop the land for at least 25 years and should then be subject to a county review. Mandatory site restoration should also be included, Routh said.

“I’m not usually one to push for more regulation,” Routh said. “I don’t want to see a moratorium that would hurt our agricultural community, but our county is no longer self-regulating. The common sense inherent to most people out here is sadly lacking in a tiny minority.”

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27