The Cambrian

Emergency permit allows removal of dead trees in Cambria

Cambrians can now apply to their services district for expedited permission to remove dead trees designated as hazardous by fire authorities. 

Under an emergency blanket permit approved by services district directors after a long discussion July 23, the county won’t charge its customary fees for the individual permissions to remove up to 1,000 hazardous trees, and no approvals by county arborists will be required.

The emergency permit’s purpose is to expedite the process of removing the dead trees to reduce fire risk. The community, county and state are in official states of fire-risk emergency, triggered by a crippling four-year drought. And Cambria’s risk is heightened by the drought’s effect on the area’s 3,200-acre native stand of Monterey pines, many of which are drying, dying or dead.

Mike Thompson, a director of the Cambria Community Services District, said before the five-member vote that he’d be the third vote to approve the emergency permit, because “it’s important that we expedite” the tree-removal process, and “it’s clear that every once in a while, you have to hold your nose and do something you don’t want to do.”

Eventually the vote to approve the emergency permit, with some changes, was unanimous.

Those changes include eliminating a clause requiring the district to take all legal responsibility for any actions brought against the county in respect to the permit, and modifying a clause that required monthly reports from the district to the county describing the number and location of trees removed during each month. Also, if there are any lawsuits or cease-and-desist orders from the California Coastal Commission, “we will discontinue any activity” related to the permit, board Vice President Muril Clift said.

Matt Janssen, division manager for the county’s Department of Building and Planning, said he’d try to get approval for the changes from his legal counsel and the Board of Supervisors. 

Janssen, who’s been with County Planning for decades, said he hadn’t been to Cambria for a while and “I didn’t realize how different it would look to me” with a “giant chunk of the forest that’s dead or dying. … Clearly this project qualifies as an emergency.” 

The permit, which county and district officials have been trying for some time to finalize amicably, would include a waiver of liability that property owners would have to sign; waive the permit costs of $126 (and $26 for each additional tree up to a total of three, although that can increase to six, according to Janssen); and require that landowners replace the removed tree(s) later. 

Individual property owners would submit plans for planting replacement trees, but some in the community, including some members of the Cambria Forest Committee, have said they’re concerned about how that condition would be enforced and monitored.

The district also is technically required to apply within 30 days for a regular coastal development permit for the project, but Janssen said there’s lots of flexibility on how and when that’s to be done, especially since such an application requires a full definition of the project and “we don’t know yet what the ultimate project will be.”

To directors’ concerns about possible Coastal Commission conflict, Janssen said repeatedly that he and his staff “have had that discussion with Coastal staff,” and that the emergency-permit process is the direction they prefer for this situation. 

The alternative of having each property owner apply for an individual “land use authorization” from the county — which, according to Janssen, is planning-speak for permission to remove a tree, permission that’s handled differently because it isn’t really a permit even though the county calls them permits — is not an option the commission wants the district to use. 

He said Coastal staff “told us flat out you’re not going to remove 1,000 trees with land-use authorizations.”

Among the first trees to be removed under the emergency permit likely will be 190 that Cal Fire has deemed hazardous on services district property (especially Fiscalini Ranch Preserve), many of which are along trails, near homes and in areas where falling trees could endanger the public.

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