While we don’t condone breaking the law — or cutting down trees unless absolutely necessary — a $41,200 fine for felling three pine trees without a permit is absurd.
At least a SLO city tree committee had the good sense to work out a compromise with property owners Frank and Alida Freda. The Santa Barbara couple recently purchased the old Midas property at 3583 S. Higuera St., where they plan to build a second commercial building. They had the trees removed as part of site preparation.
The Fredas say they knew nothing about the city’s tree policy.
They told a Tribune reporter they had been given no information about the city’s tree ordinance, despite numerous contacts with the Community Development Department.
Community development staff says the Fredas never mentioned anything about removing trees, which is why they weren’t given the information.
The Fredas should have done more research before forging ahead and removing the trees without inquiring about the city’s rules.
That said, the city’s enforcement actions were extreme, and make it look like a bully.
The Fredas initially faced a penalty of $20,600 — an amount equal to four times the estimated value of the trees. The man they hired to cut down the trees also was threatened with a $20,600 fine. On top of that, they were asked to plant 24 trees as replacements.
Through an appeal process, the Fredas were able to strike a deal. They will plant and maintain a dozen cypress trees along South Higuera and in exchange, the city will forgive the fines.That’s a reasonable compromise.
Still, we urge the city to re-evaluate the fines for violating the tree ordinance. We understand that the city is serious about protecting trees — and rightfully so. But levying such big penalties is draconian and shows little sympathy for the challenges that many business people face in this rotten economy.
The city also should consider taking additional steps to ensure that all project applicants are aware of the city’s tree trimming and removal policies, to eliminate the “I didn’t know” excuse.
Now more than ever, the city should encourage investments in the community — and unfortunately, episodes like this can have the opposite effect.