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SLO County supervisors extend oak protection, agricultural pond regulations

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.

After hearing pleas from dozens of county residents, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to extend until April 2017 an urgency ordinance they approved in July to protect the region’s iconic native oaks.

The supervisors also unanimously approved an extension until May 2017 of a related urgency ordinance giving the county more regulatory control over agricultural ponds and reservoirs.

The urgency ordinances were first enacted in July after Justin Vineyards and Winery — a brand owned by the multinational Wonderful Co. — clear-cut thousands of oak trees and caused erosion problems by grading steep hillsides to create a large agricultural pond on a property west of Paso Robles.

Angry residents, environmentalists and farmers came together to push for rules protecting native oaks and regulating ponds. The result was two urgency ordinances that supervisors put in place for 45 days. On Tuesday, the board considered whether to extend the two sets of regulations for up to two years.

The temporary oak regulations that supervisors approved prohibit the removal of oak trees in unincorporated inland areas. Exemptions are granted to agricultural landowners and residents with trees that are diseased, dead or need to be removed for emergency purposes. Farmers and ranchers are allowed to take out 5 percent of their total oak canopy without a permit.

The agricultural pond ordinance moves the grading permits required to build water-storage basins under the county’s oversight. Previously, landowners could apply for permits under an alternate review process provided by the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District in addition to going through the county. But supervisors moved to discontinue that option after Justin Vineyards and Winery used alternate review to have their grading permit approved.

Oak protection discussion

About 58 residents turned out for the board’s oak protection hearing. At least 33 farmers, environmentalists and concerned residents spoke before the board for nearly an hour and a half.

Many urged the board to extend the urgency ordinance while working on permanent rules. But some farmers and property-rights advocates expressed their dislike of regulations, which they said keep landowners from managing their resources as they see fit.

County Planning and Building Department Director Jim Bergman showed the board and audience maps of the county’s oak woodlands. There are about 2 million acres within the county with 399,000 acres made up of oak woodlands, he said. About 80 percent of those woodlands are on privately owned land, Bergman said.

Some speakers saw this figure as reason to support regulations of what they view as a common resource. Supporters of oak protections also argued a lack of regulations would cause developers to cut down mass quantities of oak trees in anticipation of a permanent ordinance.

“I believe if we don’t pass a law right now, there will be a free-for-all,” North County resident Tessa Cain said.

Los Osos resident Lisen Bonnier even brought in a tiny oak sapling and pruning shears and threatened to cut the plant in front of the board and audience members as an up-close example of “defenseless” tree destruction.

But some speakers, who balked at the potential loss of their property rights, said they see the trees as part of their land.

Greg Grewal, a Creston property owner, said he’s never removed trees from his property, but he said oaks on his land are his property, as no one else in the county pays for their upkeep.

“I don’t like ordinances,” Grewal said. “I believe in private property rights.”

The supervisors’ vote came after about an hour and a half of sometimes contentious discussion.

All board members — including North County Supervisor Debbie Arnold, who previously voted against the urgency protections — agreed on the need for interim regulations until a permanent ordinance can be drafted and considered. The sticking point was how long the interim regulations would remain in place.

Arnold and Supervisor Lynn Compton both wanted the extension period to last no longer than six months. The two expressed concerns about landowners in the process of obtaining building permits who said the urgency ordinance was forcing them to undergo expensive environmental reviews.

Compton and Arnold used such examples to counter calls from Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson to extend the ordinance for a year.

Hill said he agreed with the view that oaks are a shared resource that should be preserved. He said he wanted to see a more comprehensive ordinance that does more than just prevent clear-cutting on land being converted from woodland to other uses.

“I understand the philosophical opposition to regulation, period,” Hill said. “... But the people who were making that argument basically rejected the argument that everyone else was making, which is that these are commons, just like water. Just like fisheries. Just like other things everybody draws from and sustains themselves from.”

Eventually, Gibson proposed a compromise — a nine-month extension to April 2017, unless it’s renewed again.

In addition to approving the extension, supervisors directed staff to provide the board with an update on their progress by the end of the year.

Agricultural pond urgency ordinance

Supervisors’ discussion of the agricultural pond urgency ordinance was speedier.

Fewer than a dozen members of the public provided comments — many left after the oak protections were extended — and supervisors again voted 5-0 in favor of extending the ordinance. The board will take up the issue again in May 2017.

Before the vote, some speakers said they worried that large ponds could be used to store precious well water for sale and not just for on-site irrigation.

Neil Heaton, whose land abuts the Justin Vineyards and Winery property, said he’s still worried about the pond that remains on the neighboring property. He said he’s not sure whether the company intends to put it to use.

“We’re still shaking about the event that happened behind us,” he said.

Cain, the North County resident who spoke during the oak protection hearing, said she, like Heaton, has concerns about “water mining,” or pumping water for sale.

“Water is the currency of the future,” she said.

But Claire Wineman of the Grower Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties said her organization opposes the ordinance, saying members are concerned about the cost of obtaining permits to create ponds and reservoirs.

During the board’s discussion, Supervisor Frank Mecham said the county should begin to look more closely at how much water is being stored in ponds and how landowners intend to use it.

“There needs to be a clear understanding of the impact it’s having,” he said.

Arnold said “more intensified, irrigated agriculture” is occurring in new places, including the area where the Justin Vineyards and Winery tree removal took place.

Ultimately, in addition to extending the urgency ordinance, the board directed staff to consider permanent regulations for coastal and inland agricultural ponds and reservoirs.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

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