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SLO County supervisors approve emergency oak protection, ag pond regulations

Residents fill the chambers at a San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meeting Friday as supervisors consider an urgency ordinance to protect native trees.
Residents fill the chambers at a San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meeting Friday as supervisors consider an urgency ordinance to protect native trees. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Friday voted to approve two 45-day urgency ordinances protecting native trees and adding more oversight of agricultural ponds and reservoirs.

Supervisors debated the ordinances during a marathon eight-hour meeting attended by dozens of residents, farmers and environmentalists. The emergency rules were proposed at a June 21 meeting, where many attendees — angered by Justin Vineyards and Winery’s grading on steep hillsides and clear-cutting of thousands of oak trees on a property west of Paso Robles — called for the regulations.

The county issued a stop-work order June 9 after neighbors complained about the damage done at the 315-acre Sleepy Farm Road site.

The ordinances are effective immediately and must be reconsidered after 45 days, on Aug. 16.

Tree protection ordinance

More than 60 residents attended the first half of Friday’s special meeting, when supervisors considered the ordinance protecting native trees. Dozens of cowboy boot-wearing ranchers and environmentalists alike shared their opinions on the ordinance, which required landowners removing oak trees to receive a permit before cutting them down. Agricultural landowners could take down up to 5 percent of their trees without a permit.

Some ranchers and farmers strongly objected to the regulations, which they saw as an infringement on their property rights. Raymond Dodd Jr., whose family has farmed land in the North County for generations, said he frequently removes trees as a regular part of land maintenance.

“We don’t need an ordinance on our ranch,” Dodd said during a break. “We’re proud of our operation.”

Others said the ordinance wouldn’t impact Justin and the Wonderful Co. — the multinational, Los Angeles-based organization that owns the winery and vineyard as a brand — as much as it would local landowners, who have less money on hand to pay permit fees.

Some, including John Chesnut of the California Native Plant Society, said the ordinance could provide a “standstill” and offer temporary protections while county staff drafts new, more detailed rules.

Supervisors discussed the ordinance for more than an hour, with Bruce Gibson leading the charge to pass an ordinance, at least for 45 days. Supervisors Lynn Compton and Debbie Arnold both pushed back against Gibson, saying they thought the ordinance was too restrictive and would inhibit local agricultural operations.

“I don’t want the pendulum to swing so far to the right because of one bad actor,” Compton said.

A sticking point was a requirement that landowners looking to remove diseased trees would be required to have them assessed prior to cutting them down. Arnold and others said this would be too burdensome, both for county staff and for landowners.

“I don’t think we need to have a CSI autopsy on a tree,” Supervisor Frank Mecham said.

Eventually, the board voted on an ordinance that allows landowners to remove native trees based on the size of existing tree canopies, which will be measured using aerial photos taken by the county.

Removing up to 10 percent of the 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.

Landowners removing diseased trees would be allowed to have them assessed by county staff after removal. And land with an existing conservation easement with a management plan for native trees are exempt from the ordinance.

Supervisors voted 4-1 in favor of the revised ordinance, with Arnold casting the sole “no” vote.

“While I support a regulation to address the clear-cutting of native oaks, in my opinion, this ordinance went too far in the requirements placed on owners of rangeland properties,” Arnold said in a statement released after the meeting.

In voting for the ordinance, Compton stressed that she wouldn’t extend it beyond 45 days without substantial changes.

Agricultural pond and reservoir ordinance

During the afternoon, supervisors moved to consider an ordinance regulating agricultural ponds and reservoirs. The proposed regulations would have required landowners to apply for permits to build reservoirs with storage capacities of more than 5 acre-feet. One acre-foot generally contains enough water to serve about three households per year. Landowners also would be required to offset any water lost to evaporation during storage.

Landowners who want to build ponds or reservoirs previously needed a grading permit, which they could obtain from the county or through an alternative review process provided by the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District.

Although fewer residents were in attendance — about 30 remained after an hourlong lunch break — about 20 took to the lectern to comment on the ordinance.

Many said the ordinance was hastily drafted for so complicated a topic. Leaders of agricultural organizations asked that county officials consult them before pushing through rules that affect water usage.

Patricia Wilmore, government affairs coordinator for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, said the ordinance was “ill-conceived” and didn’t seem to exhibit an understanding of how ag ponds are built and used.

Some speakers brought up North County land use issues, saying irrigated farming used to be reserved for the area east of Highway 101, while dry farming occurred mainly on the west side.

Others, including Neil Heaton, who farms land abutting the Justin property, expressed concerns about the state of the area aquifer and the impact pumping to fill ponds would have on groundwater levels.

“What concerned us most was losing our groundwater availability,” Heaton said.

After debating whether to continue the issue to another meeting, supervisors instead decided to address another major concern: Justin workers received their grading permit from the Resource Conservation District, which meant the county didn’t oversee much of the work being done.

“I think that’s the missing link in all this,” Mecham said. “Not being able to have that oversight.”

Supervisors eventually slashed much of the ordinance and voted unanimously to eliminate the alternative review process. All ag pond and reservoir permits now must go through the county. The Resource Conservation District will no longer be involved in the process.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

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