SLO County supervisors adopt permanent oak protections

Oak trees as pictured in June 2016 shortly after sunrise on the Spanish Oaks ranch next to Highway 101.
Oak trees as pictured in June 2016 shortly after sunrise on the Spanish Oaks ranch next to Highway 101. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Starting next month, San Luis Obispo County landowners will need to consult county planners before removing more than 1 continuous acre of oak trees from their properties.

The new rule, meant to prevent clear-cutting, was part of an oak woodland ordinance the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve Tuesday. Once the ordinance is enacted May 11, landowners will need to develop a county-approved oak management plan or receive a permit if they want to take out additional trees.

Rick Mathews, one of about 30 individuals who addressed the supervisors, said oak trees are “the crowning symbol of what makes this place great” and need to be protected from “wanton criminal activity.” Although he said he thinks the ordinance could be stronger, Mathews called it “a belated step in the right direction.”

Although supervisors have considered drafting an oak protection ordinance for decades, tension between environmentalists and agricultural landowners made developing such a measure difficult. But the effort was revived after Justin Vineyards and Winery, a brand owned by the multinational Wonderful Co., clear-cut thousands of oak trees on a property west of Paso Robles in June.

After tree destruction and grading on steep hillsides were discovered, the county and Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District issued stop-work orders on a grading permit the company had received.

Residents boycotted Wonderful Co. products and pushed the Board of Supervisors to enact tree protections. The Wonderful Co. later apologized for the tree removal and pledged to donate the land to a nonprofit organization.

But large-scale oak tree removal remained legal in unincorporated areas of the county until the Board of Supervisors passed an urgency ordinance in July that put limitations on clear-cutting, although agricultural landowners were allowed to take out up to 5 percent of their canopy without consulting the county.

In August, supervisors extended that ordinance and asked planning staff to draw up permanent rules.

The ordinance supervisors approved would allow landowners who want to take out more than 1 acre of trees for management purposes to file a forester-approved plan with the county. After review, landowners would be allowed to remove up to 5 percent of the trees on their properties.

Those who want to remove trees to allow for land conversion, such as crop production, would need to apply for a permit. Removing more than 3 acres of trees for land conversion purposes would require a conditional-use permit, which calls for a public hearing.

Pros and cons

Dozens of residents turned out to speak at the Tuesday meeting, some in support of the ordinance and some against it. Those in favor of the ordinance said it was long overdue and needed to prevent non-local agribusinesses from robbing the county of its resources.

Holly Sletteland gave supervisors a petition with 1,100 signatures supporting the ordinance and said some who signed had included “impassioned comments” regarding the need for oak tree preservation.

Those against the ordinance said it would unduly burden landowners and make land management and fire prevention too difficult.

Gary Kirkland of Atascadero called the ordinance “an insult to every landowner in the county,” as it shows supervisors don’t think they can responsibly manage their own land.

Raymond Dodd, a North County farmer, said his family’s oak trees are “part of us.” Even so, he said he’s concerned about how the ordinance would affect his ability to manage the oak woodlands on his property and keep fires at bay.

“We have to have some tool so we can manage our forest the way we always have,” Dodd said.

During their discussion, supervisors asked planning staff to remove a line that would have capped tree thinning — taking out some trees in a forest to make room for others — at 5 percent to allow for some management flexibility, to the relief of some foresters and farmers in attendance.

After a series of fixes, the supervisors hailed the ordinance as a “compromise” necessary to protect the area’s resources. Supervisor Debbie Arnold acknowledged that her constituents largely manage their land responsibly, but she said the ordinance is important because it would prevent large-scale removals, such as the Justin Vineyards incident.

“Part of our responsibility is to help ensure the ecological health of the community,” Supervisor Adam Hill said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

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