By Ray Chandos
After authorizing work on a countywide tree preservation ordinance a year ago, the Orange County Planning Commission appeared to reverse course at its June 13 meeting, advising county staff to pull the plug on the project.
The draft ordinance, prepared under contract to the county by the Chambers Group, would protect native oak, scrub oak, Tecate cypress, sycamore, California black walnut, and other trees exceeding a certain trunk diameter, located on parcels larger than 20,000 square feet in unincorporated county lands. A protected tree would have to be preserved in place or, if removed, replaced by a specified number of the same species, either on or off site. Payment into a county tree preservation fund would also be allowed if replacement is not feasible.
The tree ordinance was thought to fit appropriately in the county’s “Orange is the New Green” zoning code update, which incorporates new sustainable policies. The proposed tree ordinance would not apply to planned communities or areas governed by specific plans.
Fourth District Commissioner Cameron Irons called the draft “incredibly overreaching,” and said that tree preservation should
be handled through a separate ordinance outside of the zoning code, applying only to canyon areas, or through revisions to canyon-specific plans. David Bartlett, Fifth District commissioner, agreed with Irons, and called for a complete inventory of all protected trees and a fiscal impact study.
Irons, Bartlett, and First District Commissioner Trung “Joe” Ha appeared eager to vote the plan down, but were advised by county counsel that the meeting was a community workshop only, and that a final vote would occur at a future noticed public hearing. “I would say spend the minimum time on the tree ordinance, because from what I hear from the commissioners, it’s not going to go very far anyway,” Ha told county staffers.
Commissioner Kevin Rice, whose Third District includes the canyon areas, disagreed with his colleagues. “We are definitely interested in tree preservation, and the question is ‘how do we go about it?’ I would like to have staff look into these questions so that we can go forward,” Rice said.
Out on a limb
Public speakers urged the commission to move forward with the plan. Michael Wellborn, president of Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks (FHBP), said that Orange County was the only county in Southern California that does not have a tree preservation ordinance. Celia Kutcher, representing the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society, urged expansion of the list of protected tree species. Kutcher and Wellborn were among several signatories to a letter urging the county to adopt the tree preservation ordinance, noting that “trees provide habitat, cooling effects, carbon sequestration, aesthetic benefits, property value enhancement, and a link to Orange County’s heritage.”
Gloria Sefton, vice president of FHBP and co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy said, “The tree preservation ordinance will discourage destruction of native trees in biologically sensitive areas. These trees took decades to grow, and will take decades to replace, so the bar should be high for allowing their removal.”
A final commission vote on the entire county zoning code is expected in the fall, after which it will pass to the board of supervisors for final approval.
Tree preservation plan hits roadblock at
The Saddle Crest development in Trabuco Canyon destroyed 151 mature oak trees, some with trunks more than three feet in diameter.