Confusion and uncertainty seem to be the root of the problem for a Santa Barbara County program that calls for the replanting and protection of oak trees in the Santa Barbara area.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors was unable to come to a consensus regarding the status of the Oak Tree Protection and Regeneration Program at its meeting Tuesday. Third district Supervisor Brooks Firestone said the four board members in attendance began to discuss the agenda item – which included a status report on the oak tree program and a staff directive to clarify any ambiguous language within the program’s guidelines – at 10:30 a.m. More than six hours later, after hearing Firestone present his six-point plan for evaluating the effectiveness of the program and listening to the concerns of community environmental groups and property owners, the board still had not arrived at any conclusions. The issue was continued until the board’s meeting on May 24.

Firestone said that because only four of the five supervisors were present for the entire meeting and some of the wording in his plan confused those in attendance, the board decided to postpone the program’s evaluation.

“There were only four supervisors there because one had to leave,” Firestone said. “We got tied up due to language, so we decided to take a breather.”

Firestone said the first part of his plan involved hiring an outside consultant to help the board analyze the effectiveness of the program, which restricts the removal of pre-existing oak trees in the county but does not regulate oaks planted after the program was created in 2003.

Deputy Director of Planning and Development Lisa Plowman said the board is required to evaluate the program every two years, but she said she thinks some board members may be concerned about the cost of hiring outside help.

“Mostly, the board was concerned with spending too much money,” Plowman said. “Budgets are tight. That’s what it seemed to me.”

Plowman said the oak tree program was also intended to protect “volunteer trees,” which grow from the fallen acorns of other trees. She said most people do not understand what a volunteer tree is, and she said she feels that this has caused confusion surrounding how the program is supposed to function.

Firestone said the language in certain portions of the oak tree ordinance – including the guidelines addressing the growth of volunteer trees – needs to be clarified.

“There are changes that need to be made because the ordinance is not complete, as it does not spell out what a volunteer tree is or how to account for what is a volunteer tree,” Firestone said.

Plowman said the protection program was created after the Kendall-Jackson Wine company removed 850 oaks from its property between 1996 and 2001 – a period which saw the removal of approximately 2,400 oak trees throughout the county.

Firestone said part of his evaluation plan is to investigate the origin of the program, and he said he thinks a better understanding of how it was intended to operate could help prevent similar removals in the future.

“The KJ Wine company removed a large number of oak trees back in 1998 or 1997,” Firestone said. “When people saw this happening, they became concerned. That’s why there was this ordinance. I want to know more about it.”

The remainder of Firestone’s points addressed the creation of several programs to augment the existing tree protection ordinance, including a volunteer tree-planting program and a recognition system to reward property owners who plant large numbers of new oaks.

Plowman said Firestone’s six-point plan received mixed reviews from the various board and community members who attended the meeting. She said she is aware that many of the people who voiced concerns about the plan are worried that it could potentially lead to the end of the oak tree protection program.

“His points don’t necessarily say that, but they are afraid any opening of the door has the potential to lead to problems,” Plowman said.

Firestone said he did his best to present a clear way of evaluating the effectiveness of the program, and said he had no intentions of ending the oak tree protection ordinance.

“Most of [the six points] are directed to the need of saving the ordinance,” Firestone said. “People did not seem to notice that my motions did not have anything to do with ending it.”

Whatever happens as a result of the tree protection program’s evaluation, Plowman said, the preservation of the oaks will remain a top priority for the county.

“One thing everyone has in common – everyone wants to preserve the oaks,” Plowman said. “It’s just how you go about it.”