City Council Sets Moratorium on Removal of Trees

San Marino officials will have the security of a moratorium on permits for tree removals as they tweak a proposed ordinance that is meant to address concerns about the practice and will be reintroduced in December.
Planning and Building Director Aldo Cervantes, whose department handles permits and code enforcement, has been directed to make several changes to the proposed ordinance. They include more thoroughly defining what hedges and tree topping are, adding a provision to revoke business licenses from those violating the ordinance, revising the requirement for minimum replacement tree size and removing language that distinguishes between front yard and backyard trees.
In the meantime, tree removal applications that are not currently under review by the city are not being accepted, in an effort to stymie a wave of residents trying to ram through removals that will in a few months’ time violate the city’s code.
“I think that now is the time, particularly with the impending changes, that we would see an increase in permit applications,” said Councilwoman Gretchen Shepherd Romey, signaling support of the moratorium at Friday’s City Council meeting. “I think that by putting the moratorium in place that this is the most conservative approach. People can still apply once it’s done. I think this is something that is absolutely necessary to achieve the goals that we want.”
Those goals, as outlined by a recently developed strategic plan, are to preserve San Marino’s reputation as an enclave for mature and lively trees in the metropolitan sprawl of Los Angeles. The proposed ordinance, which has had input from the city’s Planning Commission, seeks to further limit cosmetic tree removal and mandate the use of approved trees as replacements when construction or safety do necessitate removals.
“One of the things that probably everybody in this room has experienced is that when you have a visitor coming to the city for the first time, they always say, ‘Wow it is so green here,’” said resident Joyce Gatsoulis, speaking in favor of both the ordinance and moratorium. “Most of our closest neighbors are rapidly urbanizing. Trees are coming down and greenery is coming down to make way for new buildings and new condos and such.”
The ordinance also is aimed at reeling in overly enthusiastic pruning by limiting how much of a tree may be trimmed at a time, banning tree topping outright and bolstering restrictions on those who may be hired to perform tree work.
Protection for oak and other defined “heritage trees” would be bolstered, with permits granted for removal only if the tree is found to adversely impact adjacent trees or to be a safety hazard because of its proximity to structures, walkways or utilities; approval also would require the presence of a re-landscaping plan to replace that tree’s canopy. There are similar protections for “established trees” — any other trees that are at least 15 feet tall and meet certain circumference requirements.
In the event a removal permit were granted, the applicant would have to post a notice on the tree and provide written notice to all neighbors within a 100-foot
radius at least 10 days before the removal
of the tree. An appeal process also is outlined.
Fines for unpermitted removal or irreversible damage to established, heritage or oak trees are listed as well, beginning at $5,000 for a tree between six and 14 inches in diameter and escalating to $35,000 for those 19 inches or more in diameter.
Given the severity of these fines, Councilwoman Susan Jakubowski said she hoped to have the city widely promote the final ordinance and educate residents on its meaning once it is passed. Her colleagues agreed.
“I think people want to do the right thing,” she said. “I want to more or less saturate the community with education, only because the fines can be hefty with these sorts of things and a more informed community is a more cooperative community.”
The City Council planned to have a first reading of the ordinance and also to approve an urgency ordinance that would have temporarily enacted the regulations until the primary ordinance went through its second reading in December and went into effect 30 days later. However, because of the substantive changes to the primary ordinance, it will need to be reintroduced in December.
Given those changes, the City Council opted simply for a moratorium instead.

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