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SLO County ranchers, farmers want balance in oak protection ordinance

Two local takes on a possible SLO County oak tree ordinance

Farmer David Osgood and rancher Mike Bonnheim share their thoughts on a possible oak tree ordinance in San Luis Obispo County. Can officials protect local oaks without burdening land owners with additional regulations?
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Farmer David Osgood and rancher Mike Bonnheim share their thoughts on a possible oak tree ordinance in San Luis Obispo County. Can officials protect local oaks without burdening land owners with additional regulations?

Oak trees have turned the North County into a battleground this summer.

The iconic trees, for which Paso Robles is named, have pitted property rights advocates against environmentalists, and just about everyone against Justin Vineyards and Winery.

The vintner — a brand owned by the multinational Wonderful Co. — attracted the ire of tree-lovers everywhere in May when workers clear-cut thousands of oaks to make room for more grapes. And this wasn’t Justin Vineyards’ first go-around with large-scale oak removal: The company removed more than 15,000 trees at another property in 2011.

In response to the most recent clear-cutting, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors in July approved an urgency ordinance to protect oak trees until a permanent ordinance could be researched and written, a process that could take as long as a year.

Supervisors on Tuesday will consider whether to extend the ordinance for up to two years. Board members can’t alter the text of the urgency ordinance, which prohibits the owner of agricultural land from removing more than 5 percent of the oak canopy without a permit.

Ahead of the vote, environmentalists, ranchers and farmers all have concerns.

All parties say they want to protect oaks from big agriculture, but family landowners remain wary of relinquishing property rights in order to do so. It’s this impasse that has left the county without oak protections since the late 1990s, when the issue was first brought to the table.

“I’ve been involved for a very long time,” said David Chipping, conservation chair of the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Native Plant Society. “Nothing’s ever come of it.”

David Osgood: ‘Keep it simple’

David Osgood and Mike Bonnheim have worked land in the Adelaida area west of Paso Robles for decades — generations, in Bonnheim’s case. Both men hated Justin Vineyards’ tree removal, which stripped 350 acres bare. They want to prevent big companies from destroying North County land but don’t want to create extra hassles for themselves.

Osgood dry-farms grapes and walnuts on his 80-acre property on Chimney Rock Road. He’s owned the land since the ’70s and first planted grapes there in 2001.

Vines surround large oaks in Osgood’s fields, and 60 acres of woodlands cover hillsides on the other side of his property. Osgood, clad in a cowboy hat and boots and leaning on a hoe used to break up soil near his house, said he doesn’t intend to remove oaks in the future, aside from those that are dead or diseased, but isn’t in favor of regulation that “makes a criminal out of everyone who owns property.”

If you keep it simple, so most of the landowners have the freedom to remove oaks occasionally, they’ll support it.

David Osgood, Adelaida farmer, on the oak urgency ordinance

Osgood gave the urgency ordinance his full support at the July Board of Supervisors meeting, although he pointed out some areas that landowners might have trouble, including a requirement that they file tree removal forms before taking out oaks.

“Even without any changes at all, I would urge you to support this,” Osgood told the supervisors at the meeting. “Then listen to all the people who spoke today when you do the permanent ordinance.”

Osgood said he wants to see future regulations that include real punishment, such as prohibitions against development after a violation, but don’t “nitpick to death” — for example, requiring a consultation with a county arborist when removing dead or diseased trees.

“If you keep it simple, so most of the landowners have the freedom to remove oaks occasionally, they’ll support it,” Osgood said.

Mike Bonnheim: No ‘one-size-fits-all approach’

Bonnheim shared Osgood’s distaste for regulation but had additional concerns about how potential rules would impact operations on his 7,500-acre ranch. He’s a third-generation landowner — his sprawling property, just down the road from Osgood’s, has been in his family since around 1918.

The family makes a living running cattle and maintaining wildlife and a recreational area for members of a 30-member sportsmen’s club that Bonnheim’s father started. Bonnheim is proud of a conservation easement his family negotiated with the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo and the federal government more than a decade ago, which provided tax savings and development credits that were sold to developers elsewhere.

Bonnheim said the arrangement has preserved the property and saved it from development. Although the easement restricts crop cultivation and real estate development, he’s allowed to manage his oak woodlands as he likes.

Bonnheim said the family has struggled to maintain the ranch in the face of declining agricultural revenue and drought, which forced him to sell about two-thirds of his cattle. The family maintains a state-licensed campground and allows visitors to hunt or take part in other activities on part of the land. Allowing recreation on the property has helped save their livelihood, he said.

“This ranch would not be here,” Bonnheim said, gazing out over his property from the top of a hill about four miles from his house. “The cattle don’t pay the bills.”

Bonnheim thins oaks on his property to “promote diversity” and increase his land’s productivity. The approximately 7 acres of oaks Bonnheim said he removes every year constitute about 0.2 percent of his total land. He said he doesn’t know if the amount he removes would violate the 5 percent canopy limit allowed under the urgency ordinance because he’s had no reason to measure the canopy.

Oak woodlands cover the tops of hills on the Bonnheim ranch and dot the dry golden hillside beneath. Cattle and deer relax in the shade of the trees, while hawks soar overhead.

Preserving his land is of the utmost importance to Bonnheim: “It’s almost like a member of the family,” he said.

Bonnheim said he’s in favor of protecting the surrounding land from big developers but wants an ordinance to tackle tree removals that occur when owners convert properties to a different use, such as planting vineyards on rangeland. He’s not in favor of regulations that restrict his ability to manage his land.

“It makes it very difficult for people when you’re dictated to,” Bonnheim said.

Walking the line: Protecting trees and property rights

San Luis Obispo County environmentalists and conservation-minded residents are eager to see the urgency ordinance extended. They want tree protections to remain in place while a permanent ordinance is drafted, an endeavor county planners said could take at least a year.

Chipping, the Native Plant Society conservationist, said it’s especially important to extend the urgency ordinance because companies like Justin Vineyards may jump at the opportunity to remove trees before permanent rules are adopted.

He said he thinks the 5 percent canopy removal threshold “meets (landowners) halfway” and allows them to take out trees while still providing protections. Chipping also said he’d like to see a future ordinance include replanting requirements, which are not part of the urgency regulations.

The key to creating a sustainable ordinance, Chipping said, is “having less stick and more carrot,” or providing landowners with more incentives to protect oaks rather than punishing them for removals.

County Supervisor Debbie Arnold, who represents residents in the North County area, explained her dilemma to constituents at a gathering on Bonnheim’s ranch on Friday. She and other supervisors are torn between protecting landowners’ property rights and keeping large corporations from taking out large quantities of oaks.

“The people that have been here for 100 years struggling to maintain these ranches are not the enemy,” she said.

Arnold, the only supervisor to vote against the urgency ordinance in July, said she isn’t sure what position she’ll take on Tuesday. She said she wants to see a permanent ordinance take shape that protects Bonnheim’s rights but punishes those who remove healthy trees when they convert rangeland to other uses.

Steve Baker of Circle B Vineyard and Cellars attended the gathering and has been involved in efforts to stop additional Justin Vineyards-style clear-cutting. Baker said he and others involved in a grassroots movement working to protect oaks would like to see the ordinance extended. Even so, he was happy for the chance to see Bonnheim’s perspective.

“We’re not NIMBYs,” he said.

Supervisor Frank Mecham, who also represents North County residents, said he doesn’t know if he’ll support extending the urgency ordinance. As Mecham considers a permanent ordinance, he said he wants environmentalists and landowners to come together to craft rules both groups support.

“They’re the ones that should be engaged in this discussion,” Mecham said.

Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who pushed for the urgency ordinance’s passage in July, said he wants to approve an extension and move on to craft permanent rules. He said not much will have been accomplished if the regulations remain in place for only 45 days.

“The urgency ordinance doesn’t impose upon people who are good stewards of their oak woodlands,” he said.

Oak Woodland Urgency Ordinance

Under the ordinance, clear-cutting oak woodland and removal of native trees (except saplings and seedlings) is prohibited.

Exemptions:

  • Emergency personnel determine removal is necessary
  • The tree presents an immediate danger
  • The tree is diseased, as verified by the director of planning and building
  • Removal is needed for utilities and rights-of-way
  • Trimming and pruning no more than 25 percent of an individual tree’s canopy
  • Fire safety
  • Agricultural operations — no more than 5 percent of the native tree canopy is removed
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