Chico gets its ‘tree man’

City hires urban forest manager, council considers waiving fees for vandalized storefronts

Chico’s new urban forest manager, Richard Bamlet.

Chico’s new urban forest manager, Richard Bamlet.

Photo courtesy of Richard Bamlet

Throughout his years in the field, Richard Bamlet has come to believe that urban forestry is as much about people as it is trees.

“When a tree is growing by itself out in the boondocks, it’s probably not as important to people,” he said. “But when a tree is growing on a street in front of someone’s home and people are walking past it on their way to work, the emotional attachment to trees goes up significantly. … I will be spending as much time listening to people as I will going out and looking at the trees.”

Bamlet recently was hired as Chico’s urban forest manager, a position left vacant since Denice Britton retired in 2013. Starting on April 24, he will take over the city’s skeleton tree crew, which has struggled in recent years to maintain more than 31,000 street trees and meet the public’s demand for service.

City Manager Mark Orme made the announcement during the City Council’s meeting on Tuesday (April 4), marking another major change in the Parks Division. As of last month, Dan Efseaff—the city’s former parks and natural resources manager—is no longer employed by the city. Citing personnel privacy laws, Orme declined to explain the move to the CN&R. In the interim, Linda Herman—previously an administrative manager in the Public Works Department—has filled Efseaff’s position; there is no timetable for finding a full-time replacement.

Speaking by phone from his home in Roseville, Bamlet said his challenge will be “getting the urban forest back on the agenda.”

“I’m a tree man,” he said. “I’ve always been mad about trees. … I’ve worked on everything from a single tree on a front lawn right on through to 1,000-acre pine forests.”

As a young man in his home country of Scotland, Bamlet worked as a forestry officer for a township and earned a degree in ecological science from the University of Edinburgh. “Then I met a beautiful Californian lady who whisked me off,” he said. With his wife, Sabrina, he moved to the U.S. in 2010 and worked as a senior forester for the state of Florida. In 2013, the couple moved to Roseville, where Bamlet, now 48, is a natural resources technician for the city.

His expertise will be a boost for Chico’s Parks Division, low as it is on the City Council’s list of budget priorities. For the last several months, the three-worker tree crew has been buried under a backlog of 800 to 1,200 calls for service, said Erik Gustafson, the city’s director of public works-operations and maintenance.

“Richard will have a monstrous work load,” Gustafson said.

Bamlet says he welcomes the challenge, and also looks forward to growing membership of the volunteer group Chico Tree Advocates; initiating proactive programs to plant more trees on city streets; and completing the Urban Forest Management Plan, a document that has languished in draft form since Britton’s retirement.

After visiting Chico and walking through Bidwell Park on several occasions, Bamlet says Chico lives up to its designation as “City of Trees.”

“It’s a really great honor to make sure the tree population stays healthy and thriving,” he said. “We want to make sure the tree canopy is as large as it possibly can be.”

Also on Tuesday, the panel considered Councilman Andrew Coolidge’s request to waive fees for business owners whose storefronts have been vandalized.

Coolidge made the proposal after hearing from frustrated downtown business owners whose storefront windows have been scratched or shattered during a recent uptick in vandalism reported by the Chico Police Department. Currently, the city requires business owners to pay a $145 permit fee to replace windows or awnings—even to repair damage from vandalism. The fee pays for an inspection of the replacement.

Ellen Stephens, co-owner of the Grand View building on Main Street, was the only speaker during the public comment section of the meeting. She and her husband need to replace eight recently damaged windows on the building. Money not spent on fees would go toward the repairs, she said.

Coolidge proposed waiving the fees for vandalism to windows and awnings, arguing that a “clean and safe” business district is a clear benefit to the community. He called it “a no-brainer.”

City officials did not agree. If the city waives fees for a specific group—in this case, business owners—other groups will probably expect similar treatment, said City Attorney Vince Ewing. Furthermore, the existing fee doesn’t cover the cost of staff time, said Leo DePaola, the city’s building official.

Most members of the council did not want to rush action on the proposal. Councilman Randall Stone suggested that stakeholders should meet with DePaola to produce a refined solution.

“Let’s leave it to staff and the experts that are navigating this, rather than trying to come up with a piecemeal decision,” he said.

Mayor Sean Morgan made a motion to direct staff to explore lowering the fees or waiving them entirely, which the council approved with a unanimous vote.