Longtime San Luis Obispo County residents, like multi-generational farmers Irv and Coralie McMillan, were quick to inject a little bit of history into the highly anticipated decision before the SLO County Board of Supervisors on April 11 of whether to adopt a permanent ordinance protecting native oak woodlands from clear-cutting.
The McMillans and other speakers at the podium pointed to decades-old newspaper clippings from the Telegram-Tribune and Paso Robles Press to show that the debate the community has engaged in since last summer, when The Wonderful Company-owned Justin Vineyards and Winery clear-cut thousands of oak trees near Paso Robles, was also happening more than 30 years ago. Despite the decades of dialogue, no SLO County Board of Supervisors had passed a permanent ordinance to regulate oak tree clear-cutting.
“It’s really time to break the cycle,” Coralie said, speaking in favor of the proposed ordinance.
After hearing 90 minutes of mixed opinions from residents and stakeholders, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to adopt the oak woodland ordinance.
Property owners will now have to apply for a county permit to clear-cut more than 1 acre of oak woodland, and clear-cutting oak woodland on slopes of more than 30 percent is prohibited. Landowners are allowed to “trim” woodland, remove individual oaks, and clear-cut up to 1 acre of woodland without a permit. Clear-cutting for the purposes of establishing a fence line or firebreak is also allowed.
Penalties for violators include fines of up to $25,000 and prohibitions on planting or developing the site at hand.
Public sentiment at the meeting swayed from one end of the spectrum to the other. Many environmentally minded speakers felt the regulations didn’t go far enough to protect oaks and other native tree species, while several landowners and the SLO County Farm Bureau thought that elements of the ordinance were overreaching and overburdening.
The supervisors felt the rules struck the right balance between conservation and property rights.
“What we have here is a pretty reasonable compromise,” 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill said.
Supervisors John Peschong (1st District), Lynn Compton (4th Distrcit), and Debbie Arnold (5th District) argued that the Justin Vineyard’s clear-cutting incident was one that the county couldn’t afford to allow to happen again.
“One bad egg can spoil it for everybody,” Compton said.