Tree ordinance aired

City Council subcommittee hears of citizen plan to protect Chico’s trees

Homework: Tree Action members say they looked at and considered more than 1,800 city ordinances while forming the one they presented to the City Council’s Internal Affairs subcommittee this week.
If a tree-protection ordinance comes before a Chico City Council subcommittee in a town where nearly all residents say they love trees, will controversy erupt? You bet it will. This is an election year.

The tree ordinance, pushed along by the infamous oak tree slaughter in southeast Chico last March, is the combined effort of a number of folks, including those who successfully saved a hundred trees along Manzanita Avenue earlier this year when they protested a project to increase traffic flow along the section of the road that passes through Bidwell Park.

The felling of more than 100 mature oak trees earlier this year on the Terra Bella subdivision by developer Andrew Meghdadi seemed to galvanize the community toward greater preservation of the city’s trees. (Right now only those in parks and along downtown streets are protected.) That solidarity showed its cracks this week.

At a meeting of the council’s Internal Affairs Committee (IAC) Sept. 10, Alan Gair, spokesman for the citizens’ group Tree Action, and Donnie Lieberman, of Sunseri Construction, told the subcommittee members their group was made up of “all political persuasions” and included arborists, master gardeners, lawyers and builders.

“With the city’s rapid expanse, we feel it’s critical that all aspects of the planning process and relevant ordinances be reviewed to ensure that there is a good, viable, long-term strategy for the development and expansion of our city,” Gair told committee members Coleen Jarvis, Maureen Kirk and Steve Bertagna.

He said a loophole in current law allows a person to purchase land and then clear it of trees before applying for a development plan from the city. Plus, a homeowner in a new subdivision can remove trees, including those the city said the developer could not touch during construction of the development.

“All private property should fall under the same degree of control or there is no control at all,” Gair said.

The lack of clear guidelines has led to “the erosion of the mature tree canopy,” he told the IAC. “Over the last 10 years, many thousands of mature trees have been destroyed.”

Unfortunately, he said, there is no record of what has happened to the trees in Chico in the past few decades.

But the local chapter of the Building Industry Association says it is working on its own ordinance, one that is not as far reaching because, the group says, there is no great loss of trees in the Chico area. If anything, says BIA director Jim Mann, there has been an increase over the last 10 years, noting that on some projects developers replace trees at a “2-, 4-. even 6-to-1” ratio.

Gair argued that “non-native saplings can’t replace mature oak trees.”

The “over-riding good of the ordinance,” said Lieberman, “takes precedence over the few landowners who would choose to remove significant trees from their property.” The city’s “tree heritage,” he said, “is under threat by pressures of urban development.”

Bertagna agreed with Mann, saying that “the conclusion that we are losing trees doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Mann said the developers he knows go out of their way to save trees because they add value to a housing development. “Developers bend roads around trees to save them,” he said.

The ordinance puts trees in two categories for protection. “Landmark trees” are deemed “outstanding” examples of their species, are large or old or of an interesting form or 24 inches or greater in circumference at chest height. “Significant” trees are 12 inches or greater in circumference at a chest-high level.

Trees under such protection could not be topped, altered, damaged, removed or relocated without a permit. Nothing could be fastened or nailed to them, and they would be protected from contact with poisonous chemicals. In emergency situations, a police or fire chief or other designated person could approve an exception to the ordinance.

The ordinance would set up a volunteer commission to oversee its implementation.

The Tree Action ordinance, which is modeled on those in other cities, was purposefully not given to the subcommittee before the meeting. This, explained Gair, was to make sure the committee members paid attention. After reading about something, people often don’t listen when it is presented to them orally, Gair explained. City staff, he said, was given the ordinance a week earlier to study.

But this approach would come back to haunt Gair, as Bertagna, Mann and audience member (and conservative gadfly) John Gillander suggested the Tree Action folks were “ambushing” the committee.

Gair said such a notion was farfetched and that Tree Action was merely doing what the committee had asked it to do at an earlier meeting—return with a draft ordinance and then air it in a public forum. He did allow in an interview following the meeting that, in the year of the massive Meghdadi oak-felling, tree protection will rank high on voters’ lists of important issues when they go to the polls this November to elect three councilmembers.

City Manager Tom Lando said the ordinance as written “does not correspond with the way our [municipal] code [enforcement] is set up,” and that staff would suggest changes.

Mann said the BIA-sponsored ordinance still had to be presented to his board but should be ready to come before the subcommittee at its October meeting.

A petition of support for the Tree Action ordinance is being circulated and currently stands at 2,500 signatures, Gair said. “This is what is driving the ordinance.”

After the meeting, an agitated Mann told Gair, “You’re wrong with all your statements” and “You wouldn’t know the truth if it hit you in the eyes.”

Mann said he did not want to see a “bureaucracy” set up to enforce a tree ordinance, and that as he heard it the Tree Action plan had “too broad a definition” for the trees it would protect.

For his part, Gair said, “I’m not some tree-hugging liberal. This is a major issue for this city.”

And, Lieberman asked, if it’s true that those against the ordinance “are not cutting down trees, what’s the harm of having a tree ordinance?”

The matter will come back to the IAC in October.