Laguna gives initial OK to penalties for removing certain trees

An ordinance that seeks to prevent property owners in Laguna Beach from illegally removing some types of trees by levying penalties ranging from $1,000 to $30,000 received initial approval from the City Council on Tuesday.
(File Photo)

Removing trees in Laguna Beach without permission is poised to become a painful endeavor for offenders.

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance that seeks to prevent property owners from illegally removing three types of trees — ones on the city’s “heritage” list; those that are part of a landscape plan that went through a design review process; and ones that are privately maintained but located in a public right of way such as a sidewalk.

Removing a tree without authorization would incur an administrative penalty ranging from $1,000 to $30,000. Larger trees would bring higher penalties, as would heritage trees and repeat offenses.

The ordinance, modeled after laws in San Marino and San Jose, also would include a “citation fee” ranging from $100 to $500, plus a to-be-determined recouping of the city’s costs to enforce the ordinance.

The ordinance states that applicants would need a special permit to remove one of the three specified tree types and do the uprooting at their own cost. Replacement trees would have to be planted within 30 days.

The ordinance would postpone the removal if the tree has a bird nest or eggs from a species identified in a state migratory bird law.

Permission to take out heritage trees would be determined by the council. Removing landscape plan trees would be up to the city Design Review Board, and removing trees in a public right of way would be up to a city official. Among the possible reasons for tree removal are that the tree is unsuitable because it has outgrown its area or it has damaged public infrastructure.

The ordinance would not affect trees on private property that aren’t otherwise one of the three protected types, nor would it deter removal of trees deemed imminent threats to public safety.

Council members and city staff said the policy is not designed to be purely punitive but is a reminder that removing some trees requires City Hall authorization. Laguna residents will receive mailers about the ordinance later this year.

Tuesday’s approval followed a council discussion on the matter in October, when members approved city staff time to draft the ordinance.

Laguna Beach resident Ruben Flores said the city’s older trees, dating back 50 to 70 years, are invaluable. He said any replacement tree should be of similar size so it can attract birds that sought out the original tree.

The Village Laguna board wrote a letter to the council approving of the ordinance, which it said could go a long way toward mitigating “tree removal emergencies.”

BRADLEY ZINT is a contributor to Times Community News.