Who’s looking out for the trees?

Denice Britton loves trees. Her home overlooks the Feather River, and from the picture window in her living room she can bask in the panorama of vibrant, mature forestation.

It only makes sense she chose this Paradise property. She’s an urban forester by profession and passion, employed by the city of Chico to ensure the “city of trees” maintains its natural assets. On a volunteer basis, she chairs her town’s Tree Permit Review Committee, which is charged with protecting the community from egregious chopping by developers.

Lately, she’s also focused on the Tree and Land-use Council. TLC comprises residents who, like Britton, worry about the forest that prompted them to plant roots on the Ridge. They’ve seen venerable trees give way to commercial projects and subdivisions, and see the Tree Committee as a safeguard.

Some of them fought for the tree ordinance, passed in 1998, that created the committee. A decade later, that ordinance has been put up for revision, with elimination of the Tree Committee among the proposed changes.

Tree lovers made their voices heard when the ordinance first came up for public discussion, at the Feb. 12 Town Council meeting. Councilmembers decided to refer the matter to the town Planning Commission for review and recommendations. Tuesday night (March 18), the commission held a special session.

The commissioners listened to town staff and residents for nearly four hours before deciding to postpone their deliberation to April 7. That in itself represented a victory for TLC, whose members questioned why the revised ordinance needed to be fast-tracked rather than given a deliberate review. Whether their words resonate remains to be seen.

Britton came into Tuesday’s meeting with cause for suspicion. She learned about the proposed ordinance and possible elimination of her committee only when the matter popped up on a Town Council agenda. She was heading out of town and couldn’t attend that meeting.

TLC members saw other ill omens in the redrafted code. Sunday afternoon, a handful of them gathered at Britton’s house to sort through their concerns and decide how best to present them to the Planning Commission.

They decided to push three elements:

• The new ordinance should work as a land-use code, rather than limit tree-felling to a matter of health and safety.

• The town should ensure means for oversight and enforcement.

• The town should, in Britton’s words, “look at the forest, not the trees"—in other words, view the canopy holistically, not crown by crown.

They decided not to question town staff’s motives behind the redrafting, though that clearly was in mind—refreshed by Bob Hobden, a TLC member involved in the ordinance effort a decade earlier, when town politics were particularly contentious and town government seemed overly favorable toward development.

One of the participants Sunday would be on the dais Tuesday: Planning Commissioner April Grossberger, who also sits on the Tree Committee. She participated in assessing the ordinance but made sure to excuse herself when the discussion shifted to strategies for the commission meeting.

Twenty residents (plus three town officials and three media members) sat in the audience Tuesday night, and most stuck around for the marathon meeting. Planning Commission Chairman Craig Woodhouse opted to let every speaker say all he or she needed to say—no five-minute time limit.

The commissioners were left with a lot to absorb—suggestions as specific as ensuring replacement trees approximate the size of the trees getting felled to ones as broad as an overarching task force to assess the ordinance in a forest-wide context. Other issues included the qualifications for individuals designated as “experts” and the ratio for replanting, either on-site or on public land via in-lieu fees.

Motives did come up. Community Development Director Al McGreehan expressed regret that the Tree Committee got bypassed—and Planning Commissioner Loretta Griffin apologized for that on behalf of town government. Hobden, meanwhile, articulated the fears of residents who’ve felt councilmembers and commissioners long have bowed to commercial growth.

The commissioners listened, and one finally bristled. Bill Mannell detected a presupposition that Tree Committee members were experts and commissioners were amateurs. Mannell, Butte County’s solid-waste manager, pointed out his expertise in soil science and that Commissioner Mitchell Johns is an agriculture prof at Chico State. Griffin, who repeatedly criticized PG&E’s pruning efforts, pointed out she’s serving on the commission because she loves her town.

After the commission voted to continue the ordinance review in April, Britton said the meeting “allayed some of my concerns about the motives behind it. It hasn’t necessarily allayed my concerns about what’s concerned me all along, the trees. But I have a much better sense from this Planning Commission than I ever have from the Town Council or past Planning Commissions that these people are listening. It does bode better.”