Supes call tree cutting fee excessive

12/15/2011

The Marin County Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to significantly reduce a fee for homeowners in unincorporated areas to remove native or otherwise protected trees in streamside conservation areas. Though not part of the agenda, supervisors, perhaps stirred by a sizable turnout of San Geronimo Valley residents opposed to the $1,490-minimum fee, said they would reduce it to something in the range of $150. A vote on the reduction is scheduled for January 24.

Supervisors spent much of Tuesday afternoon reviewing a staff proposal on a revision of the development code that would, in part, scale back the number of native trees an unincorporated area homeowner could cut from five to two per year. The decision to revisit the tree removal permit fee came after nearly three hours of public comment, in which dozens of homeowners voiced concerns and said the policy failed to acknowledge their longstanding stewardship of the land.

“We like trees,” said John Bernarding, a 30-year resident of Lagunitas. “Now, I’m not against this two tree limit… but we’re not cutting down the trees, so where’s the problem?”

Another resident likened the fee to a chemical being dropped by a “bureaucratic crop-duster.”

“I think $1,400 is way out of line,” said Jack Mathews, of Inverness. “There are of course going to be a few bad apples but I don’t see many abuses of [the permitting process] over the years.”

Others feared the fee would deter homeowners from removing potential fire hazards, which could lead, in turn, to increased fire insurance rates. One woman claimed there weren’t enough incentives for residents who planted new trees or allowed fallen ones to decompose.

Some claimed the fee was the result of a litigation threat from the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN), a local nonprofit that has been pushing the county to amp up its habitat restoration efforts in recent years.

Under existing code, homeowners are allowed to remove up to five native trees per year without a permit, as long as they are not considered large “heritage” trees or located near a stream or wetland area. They are also exempt from obtaining a tree removal permit if the tree is diseased, unstable, a fire hazard or carrying pathogens threatening to nearby trees. In those cases they are advised to submit photographs and to obtain an independent arborist report.

The code is intended to deter residents from having to submit to the often complex and costly permitting process, said county planner Tom Lai.

The proposed two-tree limit would particularly impact residents in the Valley since more than half of their homes are in streamside conservation areas, meaning the need for permits would likely increase.  

According to Lai, the $1,490-minimum fee was adopted in January of 2010 as part of an across-the-board fee restructuring effort by the county, which sought to establish fees that better reflected the actual cost of processing applications. Since county staff had very few tree permits on which to base their assessment—there were only 40 applications between 1998 and 2010, and many were for large and complicated projects—the $1,490 was deemed a break-even figure.

The hike had nothing to do with a litigation threat from SPAWN, Lai added. “That’s apples and oranges,” he said.

Lai said that reducing the tree-removal rule to two would likely result in an increase in the number of annual applications.

Community Development Agency Director Brian Crawford suggested that his staff revisit the fee and return to the board with a list of alternatives. “We don’t believe the county’s ordinance is any more restrictive than other towns and cities. However, our fees are definitely higher,” he said. “If the board wanted to explore a different fee structure you could direct us to do that and we would go back and study that.”
But Supervisor Steve Kinsey said it wasn’t worth the time it would take. “How about we just giving you a number? Like, say, $150?” he asked, glancing at the three other supervisors in attendance, who nodded their heads in agreement.