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SLO Supervisors extend urgency ordinance protecting native trees 

Before the San Luis Obispo County Supervisors considered extending an urgency native tree protection ordinance on Aug. 16, a tense cloud hung above the heads of the ordinance's supporters as they worried whether the board would furnish the four votes necessary for approval.

But the skies cleared as the board gave it their unanimous blessing.

The ordinance will be extended to April 14, 2017, and sets noticing and permitting requirements for native tree removal. Minor exemptions exist.

The ordinance won support from 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold, who opposed its first passage on July 15, and 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton, who was considered the swing vote for the four-fifths majority required to pass it.

Compton cautiously supported the ordinance with the caveat that she expects the permanent version to be less strict and to heavily incorporate stakeholder input, specifically from the agricultural industry.

She recognized the need for protections to prevent episodes like the controversial mass clear-cutting of thousands of oak trees on a property owned by Justin Vineyards and Winery, but doesn’t want the new rules to go overboard.

“I do not want every oak tree to be a commons in this county,” she said.

Arnold proposed extending the ordinance for just six months and giving planning staff that time to draft a more basic permanent ordinance, but that failed because 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson and 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill said that wouldn’t be enough time for a thorough process and could result in flimsy policy.

“I can’t support Supervisor Arnold’s thought of a bare bones ordinance that we can hang some more ornaments on,” Gibson said. “That’s not good policy; that’s not sufficient process.”

Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin, who’s running to fill 1st District Supervisor Frank Mecham’s seat when he retires, spoke on behalf of the Paso Robles City Council, who unanimously voted to support the urgency ordinance. He encouraged the county’s pursuit of a permanent ordinance.

“I think you need to continue with the urgency ordinance because if you do not you will have a period of time without enforcement or you will have a fluid situation of people wanting to remove oak trees at the very time you’re trying to figure out how to protect them.”

Martin’s electoral opponent, political consultant John Peschong, has attended several meetings but hasn’t spoken on the oaks issue at the hearings. He later told New Times that he’ll remain open minded and see what county staff drafts to prevent clear-cutting and encourages policy that “doesn’t tie the hands of farmers, ranchers, and property owners.”

The board also extended an urgency ordinance that requires a major grading permit for the construction of agricultural ponds and halts their approval through an alternative process.

For the last several years, landowners have had the option of permitting a pond through an alternative review process handled by a resource conservation district (RCD) instead of the county. That program came under fire during the Justin Vineyards clear-cutting fiasco after the winery received an alternative review permit and began building a massive 21-acre-foot reservoir. Even though the company ultimately violated the terms of their contract with the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas RCD, the program received scrutiny because some residents in the Adelaida area west of Paso Robles worried the pond was excessively large and would imperil their water supply. Others questioned whether such projects should be reviewed by RCDs, which don’t have regulatory teeth and aren’t as robustly staffed as the planning department.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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