Tree plan takes root

And on the second day, the council created a tree ordinance.

It took two meetings held on successive nights, and the matter still has to go before the Finance Committee for final details, but the city of Chico is close to enacting a tree-protection law.

The debate divided the council, with three councilmembers calling it unnecessary, but in the end not even local TV pitchman The Rental Guy could axe it.

The ordinance, which was drafted and then altered a number of times, applies only to large trees (24 inches or more in diameter at chest height) on half-acre parcels or larger that contain no existing dwelling. There are an estimated 159 such pieces of land in Chico. Currently if a land owner wishes, he or she can clear-cut that property.

The latest modified version was suggested by Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan as a compromise between supporters of the original draft, which including pruning permits and protecting trees with a 17-inch diameter, and the folks dead-set against any ordinance.

The whole matter was sparked last year when developer Andrew Meghdadi removed more than 100 valley oaks from his Terra Bella residential development in southeast Chico. Meghdadi and the city are now locked in a courtroom battle that so far has cost the city $250,000.

In the wake of Meghdadi’s massive tree harvest, a citizens’ group called TreeAction was formed. Initially the tree-protection effort had the support of the full City Council. At a meeting last year, the council voted 7–0 to create such a law. But during the drafting of the ordinance some of that support began to wane.

So the TreeAction folks, sensing a losing battle, turned the matter over to the city staff, which took the basic structure of the ordinance and tweaked it to be less intrusive on private-property rights.

Tony Baptiste, the city’s community development director, said the main purpose of the ordinance would be to monitor the city’s tree population. There is no way to do that currently, thus no way to measure suspected tree loss.

Baptiste said the ordinance would also require those removing trees either to replant or pay to plant trees elsewhere “to keep the canopy in its present state or make it better.”

But with Councilmembers Dan Herbert and Steve Bertagna saying the city’s current tree canopy proves no ordinance is needed and Councilmember Larry Wahl calling the measure “creeping socialism,” Nguyen-Tan stepped in to suggest the compromise.

TreeAction spokesman Alan Gair had earlier chided Wahl, Herbert and Bertagna for what he considered their less-than-tactful responses to the efforts of the TreeAction members and told them they had nothing to lose by voting for the ordinance.

“If people don’t cut down trees, the ordinance will lie unused on the city attorney’s bookshelves, collecting dust,” he said.

However, Jim Goodwin, Chico Chamber of Commerce CEO, argued that having such a law on the books would send a message to businesses looking to move here that Chico is over-regulated.

“This is not necessary and adds a regulatory climate to the city that we don’t need,” he said.

About a dozen folks spoke in favor of the ordinance, about five against.

Rick Colletti, a developer and owner of Lands End Real Estate who said he was speaking on behalf of the Building Industry Association, said the ordinance was a reaction to one isolated incident and placed an unfair burden on a development community “that has put in many more trees than it has removed.”

Also speaking against the ordinance was Alex DuBose, who plays the character “Rental Guy” on television commercials for Guy Rents.

Dubose said the good folks of Chico value their trees and that such an ordinance will make it less likely that county residents living within the Chico sphere will be willing to be annexed into the city.

Working out the penalties and other details will be up to the Finance Committee.