County Officials Draft Plan to Protect Oaks, Sycamores

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County officials have drafted an ordinance that would prohibit most property owners from chopping down oak and sycamore trees on patches of rural and urban land throughout the county.

If the Board of Supervisors adopts the ordinance, Ventura County will become one of a handful of counties in the state to have such a regulation, although some environmentalists say the proposal is not restrictive enough.

The issue is scheduled to be discussed at a Thursday Planning Commission meeting, although final approval is not expected until next month.

County officials decided to pursue an ordinance guarding the oaks and sycamores in the rapidly developing areas of the county after receiving letters from Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Moorpark and Ojai, which all implemented measures to protect the trees.

"It distresses me to the utmost when I can stand on a street in Thousand Oaks where the trees are protected, and 10 yards away they're removing trees in the county," said Bill Elmendorf, urban forester for Thousand Oaks. "It's a shame to take down a tree, especially if you don't have to."

Under the proposed ordinance, oak and sycamore trees could be removed if they are diseased, in the way of public utilities or a threat to public safety. Property owners could also apply for a special permit to remove a tree if they can prove that there is no other way to build around it.

Also, property owners would be required to apply for a permit to trim larger oak and sycamore trees.

"If we really want to safeguard trees, we have to take certain measures," said Todd Collart, manager of the county's zoning administration section.

The proposed ordinance would affect 26,000 acres of unincorporated rural and urban areas, including Oak Park, Bell Canyon, Ventura River Valley and the Santa Susana Knolls near Simi Valley. It does not include open space and agricultural land, which total about 470,000 acres.

Although response to the proposal has been favorable, county planners said, the proposed measure has received some criticism from local environmentalists.

"There's not a lot of trees on the agricultural land and that's fine," said John Etter, a Simi Valley environmentalist. "But the ordinance should be extended to open space. We want to make the message clear that you don't mess around with this. Trees are a resource that should be preserved."

Collart said county planners decided not to include open space and agricultural land in the ordinance to avoid a controversy. About eight years ago, officials proposed a similar ordinance that included nearly all areas in the county. That measure, however, was soundly defeated after farmers and ranchers argued that they should be able to do as they please with their land.

"It's a sensitive matter," Collart said. "We fully understand people's concerns about expanding the ordinance into open space, but we are trying to put together a proposal that will succeed. We talked about the history of this thing and decided to shrink the ordinance to include urban and rural areas."

Joan Kemper, a member of the Ventura River Valley advisory council, said she is concerned that the ordinance will only cause bureaucratic hassles for individuals who want to remove a tree so they can build onto their homes.

"It's just one more restriction," Kemper said. "If you want to save trees, you have to have rules. But, it seems like we have more and more rules every time we turn around."

Nevertheless, Keith A. Turner, county planning director, said: "We're proposing something people should be doing anyway . . . protecting the large, mature trees of the county."

Collart added: "Hopefully, we can get people to stop and think of why they're chopping trees down."

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