Old trees and new golf

Council updates tree ordinance, funds disc-golf improvements

The desire to save large, old trees banged up against the issue of personal property rights at the City Council’s regular meeting Tuesday (Jan. 20), as the council tackled proposed revisions to its long-controversial tree ordinance that would set standards for developers and establish a voluntary program designed to protect historical trees.

The voluntary Heritage Tree Program would allow private landowners (or any person with the owner’s written consent) to submit an application and $300 fee to designate a qualifying oak or sycamore tree—or any other outstanding and unusual tree of historical interest—as an official “Heritage Tree.” Once so designated by the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission and the City Council, the tree would be protected from removal despite changes in property ownership, and could never be removed unless a tree removal permit was granted down the line.

Some members of the council expressed concerns about the ordinance’s infringing on the rights of property owners. There was also uncertainty about just what makes a tree “historical” or “outstanding.”

Councilman Larry Wahl was most outspoken about on this front, insisting that government should exercise fewer controls over the lives of citizens, not more, and that more time was necessary to work out kinks in the ordinance.

“Why do we need it?” he asked at one point.

Amendments to the ordinance would redefine what constitutes a protected tree, and exclude some 35 species that do not make the cut, such as Chinese tallow, English holly and many varieties of fruit trees (for a full list, go to www.chico.ca.us). The changes would apply only to undeveloped private property 10,000 square feet or larger and all property that requires approval of a land-use entitlement.

Three citizens spoke during the public hearing, including Alan Gair, who called Wahl’s approach “dinosaur-like” and said that the ordinance has not been rushed. However, Gair did ask the council to amend the ordinance to protect trees with trunks as small as 12 inches in diameter, instead of the proposed 18-inch standard. Young trees are most affected by pollution, and saving as many trees as possible is the “cheapest and easiest way to improve the environment and the ecosystem,” he said.

Gair’s wife, Francine, echoed her husband’s sentiments, adding that the $300 application fee to establish a Heritage Tree would stop the program in its tracks. She also noted that the original concept of the Heritage Tree Program was educational, and asked the city to subsidize some of the application costs.

In the end, the panel passed the ordinance 6-1, with Wahl the sole dissenter.

In other council news, disc-golf enthusiasts enjoyed a small victory after the council approved the allocation of up to $52,000 of leftover Proposition 40 grant funds—albeit with a caveat. The grant money will be allocated to establishing disc-golf baskets at local parks and eventually establish a new, permanent short course in a location that poses the least environmental impact.

During a public hearing on the matter, more than 21 members of the community—most of them members of the disc-golf advocacy group “The Outsiders”—spoke. All but two encouraged the council to approve the proposal, saying that disc golf is a family sport that encourages fitness and a better quality of life.

At first, the council rejected the allocation of funds. The panel then reminded the disc-golf group’s members that they had originally promised to raise the funds themselves. Relenting somewhat, the council then requested that the proposal be tweaked to require the group to match the city’s financial contributions through monetary donations, volunteer work or other resources. With those changes, the council unanimously approved the allocation.

The vote is a step right direction for enthusiasts such as Jennifer Nelson, who had asked the council to approve the allocation so that changes to the current course and plans for the future can get underway immediately. Nelson pointed out that the council has allocated much of its Prop 40 funds for expensive upgrades, such a $150,000 restroom at Bidwell Park’s One-Mile Recreation Area.

“Go for a recreation,” she pleaded. “Go for a true recreation, not just a bathroom.”