Woodlands watchdogging

Oak ordinance raises questions about mitigation, lack of preservation

Pete Calarco, assistant director of Butte County Development Services, says the oak ordinance headed to county supervisors could apply to a parcel with even one tree.

Pete Calarco, assistant director of Butte County Development Services, says the oak ordinance headed to county supervisors could apply to a parcel with even one tree.

Photo courtesy of Butte County Development Services

Ordinance drafts:
Visit tinyurl.com/ButteOakOrd for more information on the oak mitigation ordinance, including revised versions.

Two summers ago, neighbors of a large vineyard in the Central Coast community of Paso Robles grew alarmed when they realized earth movers had cleared hundreds of oak trees on the property.

San Luis Obispo County officials issued a stop-work order to prevent further grading. By spring—specifically, April 2017—public concern had grown wide enough that the county adopted a preservation ordinance to prohibit clear-cutting oaks. Napa and Sonoma counties have similar laws.

Butte County does not, though an oak tree ordinance is working its way through government channels. This statute—the Oak Woodlands Mitigation Ordinance, approved by the county Planning Commission at its Sept. 27 meeting—would streamline environmental reviews for developers and landowners who want to remove trees and set out means to offset the losses.

That may sound ecological in nature. However, Woody Elliott, conservation chair for the Mount Lassen chapter of the California Native Plant Society, wants to disabuse everyone of that notion. While emphasizing he doesn’t support or oppose the proposal per se, he says it’s important to know its limits.

“It’s not really a preservation ordinance. It’s an ordinance to facilitate the removal of oaks,” he told the CN&R by phone. “It will, at best, result in a minimal loss of oak woodlands.”

The Board of Supervisors will take up the ordinance Nov. 6, according to Pete Calarco, assistant director of the county’s Development Services Department. It stems from the county’s general plan, which includes policies “that support an oak mitigation program”; he said it’s “a priority of the board to complete this [process] by the end of the year.”

Currently, Calarco explained, officials evaluate oak removals on a case-by-case basis. Options to offset the loss of trees comprise replanting, establishing conservation easements or making in-lieu payment to the state oak conservation fund.

If adopted, the ordinance would establish a code for most development projects in unincorporated areas, such as small subdivisions, that in most cases would preclude the need for a specific environmental impact review for removing oak trees.

“Part of the discussion has been the concern that this ordinance isn’t a preservation ordinance, or a protection or permitting ordinance—and that’s correct,” Calarco said. “It’s an ordinance that sets a threshold of significance under [state environmental law] for development projects.

“It also helps prospective applicants understand what’s expected for analyzing oak woodlands when they’re doing their project design, in advance of submitting an application; and also have a general idea of what to expect from mitigation, so they can begin making some decisions about whether they are interested in [pursuing a project].”

Elliott views mitigation of oak woodlands as a “problematic” proposition. During the two public workshops and comment periods for drafting the ordinance, he offered some of the most pointed critiques—as did members of California Oaks, an Oakland-based project of the California Wildlife Foundation.

The ordinance, Elliott told the CN&R, “calls for replanting oaks to replace those that are taken, and there really is no place to replant oaks that they aren’t already growing in naturally. The other provisions are for purchasing mitigation credits or outright oak woodlands of a certain value—that does not create new oaks.

“So, you result in a net loss.”

Oaks have environmental significance. In response to a draft of the ordinance, Angela Moskow of Cal Oaks wrote that “standing trees and associated soils sequester carbon while providing habitat, watershed, and other ecosystem benefits” such as “a productive understory of grasses that support 60 percent of California rangelands” and “acorns [that] are a highly nutritious food source for livestock.”

Calarco said his department and the commission took public feedback into consideration and made several changes accordingly. Those include qualifications of experts authorized to assess mitigation and a rule prohibiting an arborist from both recommending and performing work on the same project.

Perhaps most significantly, the county changed the size of the grove to which the ordinance would apply. Rather than calculate the percent oaks represent in a site’s tree canopy, applicants and county planners could look at the mitigation rules for “essentially any canopy area for an oak tree,” Calarco said—using the rules for even a single tree.

Elliott’s issue with the ordinance is “it creates the illusion you’re doing a lot of good things for oaks.” That would come from a preservation ordinance. He hopes the current discussions and deliberation winds up leading Butte County to follow Sonoma and Napa—and forestall an imbroglio like San Luis Obispo County’s.

“I see this [mitigation ordinance] as a process, as I told the Planning Commission, of becoming informed about the importance of preserving oaks,” Elliott said. “Hopefully, before it’s too late, they’ll get around to that.”