On November 5, I attended a public workshop to review the proposed Mendocino County Oak Tree and Oak Woodlands ordinance, an ordinance intended to prevent the wholesale clearing of oak woodlands to plant cannabis. While I support its intent, it is so poorly written that even my tree-hugging, environmental-crusader friends will likely take issue with it. The Planning Commission will hear public comments on this item December 17. I hope after reading this column, you will be inspired to participate in that meeting.
In short, if you own property in the unincorporated part of Mendocino County, the ordinance would require you to plant between 8 and 16 oak trees on your property for every one that is cut, whether you own two acres or 200 acres, whether you have room on your property or not, whether the soil is right for oaks or not. It seems this ordinance was based on the belief that the more trees that are planted, the more likely one is to survive. Clearly, the ordinance was developed in a bubble rather than in collaboration with foresters, land managers, or anyone else who understands how to plant and protect trees (though apparently, some experts were brought in after the fact). I can tell you that county staffers did not get stakeholder buy-in; that is, they didn’t take the time to ask Mendocino County farmers and those of us in real estate how this might affect the local economy and housing market.
It’s not as though our local bureaucrats had to start from scratch. In Napa County they have a far more reasonable oak tree ordinance. Two or three oaks must be planted for every one that is removed, and the new trees can be planted within the county wherever it makes sense, either on the property where trees are removed or off-site. Clearly, the folks in Napa County understand that each property is unique, and that flexibility is key. And they reward property owners who take action that aligns with the county’s overall vision. For example, if a property owner completes a publicly beneficial project, he only has to plant two trees for every one removed rather than three.
The proposed Mendocino County ordinance not only misses the mark on protecting oak trees, it does so in the most expensive, bureaucratic, and burdensome way possible. It’s as though misguided staffers who were supposed to create a reasonable ordinance to limit the conversion of woodlands to marijuana cultivation instead saw an opportunity to halt land development countywide. As written, the ordinance represents nothing more than poorly considered and poorly executed overreach.
There are so many things wrong with this ordinance, I hardly know where to start. Generally speaking, it is full of squishy definitions that make it almost impossible to know how to comply, and the permit process is discretionary, which leaves compliance up to two individuals’ interpretations, one after the other, because the permitting process involves not only county personnel but also the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Probably one of the most frustrating elements of the proposed ordinance its lack of common sense. It is unclear whether specific exemptions exist for creating defensible fire spaces or pruning trees away from homes, businesses, or utility lines. It is unclear what happens if property owners have to remove oaks because of sudden oak death and cannot afford to replace the trees. The ordinance includes an exemption process, but for sudden oak death, for example, you have to hire a qualified professional to certify that the trees are, in fact, diseased. According to my sources, even if sudden oak death is present, you may have to go through the full permit process required for any tree removal, and that permit is estimated to cost about $2,500 plus $1,000 per tree.
Check back next week when I share more information about the damaging details of this ill-conceived proposal. To read the ordinance for yourself, visit www.mendocinocounty.org/home/showdocument?id=38690. If you’d like to review some common sense recommendations, you can review our proposed changes at www.mendocinocounty.org/home/showdocument?id=38898. If you are concerned about this ordinance, please share your thoughts with the Mendocino County Planning Commissioners and the county supervisors. I hope to see you at the Planning Commission meeting on December 17.
Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 45 years.