After nine years of controversy, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors approved final changes to a local oak tree protection ordinance yesterday that will make it easier for some landowners to give the axe to oaks growing on their property.
In a 3-2 vote at the weekly Board of Supervisors meeting, the board approved modifications to the oak tree ordinance – a law enacted in 2003 to protect large numbers of oaks from being cut down by local property owners. Brooks Firestone, 3rd District supervisor, said the ordinance only applies to farm fields or potential farm fields with a large number of oak trees. The rewritten ordinance relaxes the guidelines for what counts as a voluntary tree, which is a tree planted or nurtured by a landowner, Environmental Defense Center Chief Counsel Linda Krop said.
“The changes would further weaken protections for oak trees in the county,” Krop said.
Krop spoke against the revised ordinance at the board meeting along with other members of the Environmental Defense Center, a Santa Barbara-based law firm specializing in environmental legislation. She said the original oak tree ordinance only permitted property owners to cut down trees that they themselves had planted or nurtured, and it included strict criteria defining what qualified as nurturing a tree.
The revised ordinance allows landowners to pick and choose from a list of things that qualify as nurturing a tree, rather than having to do all of the things on the list, Krop said.
“They drastically changed the definition of what a landowner has to do to nurture or protect an oak tree,” Krop said. “The previous bill said a landowner has to do a whole host of things to make sure the oak tree could survive, and the tree had to survive to a certain [age]. The new program says that a landowner doesn’t have to do all those things. They changed the word ‘and’ to ‘or’ and now a landowner can just go out every once in a while and throw some water on a tree and say ‘We nurtured it.'”
Firestone, who voted in favor of the revisions, said he thinks the rewritten ordinance will help preserve the local oak tree population. He said he thinks people currently chop down trees that grow naturally on their property because they are afraid to feed them in case they eventually want to remove the trees.
“The change that I was most interested in and voted for was to exempt volunteer trees that are nurtured, the same way that planted trees are exempt,” Firestone said. “The misunderstanding or anxiety about the ordinance has caused people to turn away from planting or allowing [oaks] to grow. This move cleans all that up and I think this is a very good move for oak trees.”
The original oak tree ordinance stemmed from an incident in which the Kendall-Jackson Winery bulldozed a large number of oaks to plant a vineyard, causing many members of the community to bring suit against the local vintner, Krop said. She said the board of supervisors discussed the ordinance with agriculture groups, ranchers, developers and environmentalists for six years before adopting it.
First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal said he voted against changing the ordinance because he felt the original ordinance was a good compromise between local interest groups and did not need to be changed.
“I voted against it because we have been going back and forth with proposed changes to the oak protection ordinance that was put in place in  and the existing ordinance was borne out of a compromise of agriculturalists, environmentalists and urbanites,” Carbajal said. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was a decent compromise by all interests.”
Carbajal said he thinks some members of the board used recent lawsuits brought against the supervisors by the Cattlemen’s Association and the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business – who claimed that the board’s review process for the original ordinance was incomplete – as an excuse to propose and pass the changes.
“This litigation is as frivolous as they come, and it is unfortunate we’re using that litigation as part of the impetus and rationale … so we could make these changes,” Carbajal said.
Firestone said he thinks the changes to the ordinance will cause more trees to be planted in the county.
“There will be publicity about this,” Firestone said. “Nurseries, landscape architects and gardeners will be able to say ‘Let your oaks grow, don’t worry about it.'”
However, Carbajal said he believes the changes will hurt Santa Barbara’s oak population, as well as future generations of local residents.
“I think it’s all unfortunate, and I think it undermines our real ability to protect oak trees and these wonderful resources in our county,” Carbajal said. “I voted against it because I think we’re just moving backward instead of moving forward in strengthening what should be an already existing oak tree protection ordinance. I’m really dismayed. Future generations lost again today on being able to enjoy these precious environmental resources.”