County Planners Consider Putting a Dollar Value on Trees : Environment: The law would exceed the current oak ordinance and add fines for builders and homeowners.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission agreed Thursday to fashion a sweeping county tree ordinance, likely to far exceed current oak tree regulations.

Among the plans commissioners will consider in meetings this summer is placing a monetary value on individual trees, which would be assessed as a fine on developers or homeowners if the trees were removed. The commission rejected that idea several years ago as too controversial, but participants in Thursday's meeting said the present commissioners--influenced by heightened public concern about the environment--may be more inclined to approve it.

"Last time everybody got cold feet, but things are different now," said Charles J. Moore, principal deputy county counsel.

Speakers who appeared before the commission Thursday ranged from the chief of the county forestry division to a Santa Clarita environmentalist. They suggested regulations that included a requirement to move a transplanted tree's entire habitat--surrounding shrubs, grasses, soil, even rocks--to improve its chances of surviving. Trees sometimes grow to depend on these elements in their surroundings, said Richard D. Cross, an environmental consultant.

Speakers also suggested that developers be required to post bonds to ensure a tree's survival and that the county should mandate the preservation and replacement of trees other than oaks, currently the only species protected.

County Forester Joseph Ferrara said that without stronger regulations the struggle to preserve a viable urban forest will be lost.

"People plant trees around their homes, so there are probably more trees in Southern California than ever before," Ferrara said. "What we're losing the battle on is quality."

Ferrara said the major flaw in the existing oak tree ordinance, which requires replacement of felled older trees with two saplings, is that it does not adequately restrict planting locations or conditions.

When developers plant a tree along a street or in a yard, "what you in essence have is a caged tiger," Ferrara said. "What we're going to end up with is a zoo of trees." Sidewalks, lawns, irrigation and other factors change the tree's environment, he said.

Some of those who testified Thursday said the county does not adequately enforce existing regulations. Ferrara said his department often is too busy surveying new development plans to keep track of whether other developers have fulfilled their commitments to plant and nurture trees.

"The key . . . is committed enforcement, which we really don't have with our oak ordinance," said Dorothy Riley, a member of the board of directors of the Santa Clarita Oak Conservancy. "There needs to be somebody minding the store."

In addition to the oak tree ordinance, the county requires the planting of street trees in new subdivisions and landscaping of parking lots, commercial zones and industrial areas. But the county does not require specific numbers, sizes or varieties of trees.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich had asked the commission to review tree ordinances, saying in April that he was inspired by forest parks that he saw in Israel. He said that after returning to Los Angeles, he was struck by the "barren landscapes punctuated by sporadic plantings of sapling trees" in newer housing developments.

Antonovich recommended that the county ask for larger oak replacement trees--those that come in 24-inch boxes instead of the saplings in 15-gallon cans now required, which Antonovich described as "spindly."

But most of those who testified at Thursday's hearing said bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to planting trees.

Tom Dittmar, supervising landscape architect for the county parks department, said smaller trees catch up with the larger ones within a year or two and have a better chance of surviving. The larger trees are more likely to go into shock from being transplanted, leaving them more susceptible to frost and disease, Dittmar said.

When the idea of valuing trees came up before, the focus was on preserving the oldest, most visible specimens of all varieties, Ferrara said, adding that he will propose a similar approach this time.

Fines of up to $10,000 or more would be assessed for removing one of these trees, he said, and that money would be used to establish a fund for forest land acquisition.

Under the oak tree ordinance, large developers frequently offer to donate land to a park agency in return for county approval of their development. Ferrara said this practice would continue if a valuation ordinance is adopted because the fine could be paid in land instead of cash.

Tree Suggestions * Price Tags: Place a monetary value on trees, to be assessed as a fine if they are removed.

* Fines: Use fines to buy forests suitable for preservation.

* Moving the Habitat: Move a tree along with its habitat, including grasses, shrubs, even fallen trees.

* Bonded Guarantees: Require developers to post bonds to ensure a new or protected tree's survival.

* Replacement Trees: When trees are cut down, allow developers to plant replacement trees on another site to avoid crowding.

* Tree Trade-ins: Give new homeowners tree certificates, which they can trade for a tree of their choice at a local nursery.

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