Government / Politics

County extends tree-cutting moratorium

County supervisors hope 10 month, 15-day extension will lead to permanent tree ordinance in as soon as 90 days

The San Benito County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted 4-1, with Margie Barrios opposed, to extend the temporary tree-cutting moratorium by 10 months and 15 days while county officials work to develop a permanent ordinance governing the removal of trees. The issue spawned from Ridgemark residents' complaints about the golf course's owners cutting down trees in the development just south of Hollister on Airline Highway.

A number of Ridgemark residents called on the board to extend the urgency interim ordinance that was approved on Oct. 21. The 10 month and 15 day extension continues the prohibition on cutting trees 8 inches or greater in diameter in urban areas of the county without permission. By approving the extension, the county could choose to do a third extension of the ban for another year following this extension, though officials are hopeful that a permanent ordinance will be in place before then.

Alex Kheriotis, who, along with his father, John, owns Ridgemark, said the removal of trees was done to maximize the safety of residents and that the proposed extension would be an "undue burden on us" while causing "potential damage or harm" to residents if dying or diseased trees fall on their property.

John Kheriotis said, "Clearly, we have a communication problem between the homeowners and the developer," referring to himself and his son. While he said to the crowd, "we need to find a way to get along," he quickly followed that up with "we own the property, you don't," which later drew a rebuke from Supervisor Robert Rivas. 

Kheriotis said a portion of the 36-hole golf course was closed because of water use restrictions and potential fines for over-use and that he and his son would like to build homes in the closed portions of the course. "We're trying to move forward to develop the property," he said. "We'd like to have the homeowners work with us, cooperate with us, communicate with us."

Teresa Bettencourt, president of the Ridgemark Homeowners' Association, joined the call for an extension of the tree-cutting moratorium, saying that it allows for appropriate tree removal practices and "ensures the environment is not preemptively altered before development" occurs.

"What is happening at Ridgemark should never be repeated in San Benito County," she told supervisors during a public hearing on the matter. "It's a mockery to those that must live with the aftermath." She closed by asking why, if the golf course owners were so concerned about the aesthetics of Ridgemark, would they not remove many of the felled trees on the course.

Barrios said the ongoing dispute between residents and the Kheriotis's "is a situation where everyone can lose if we don't approach it with cooperation and compromise." She said extending the moratorium by nearly a year "is not acceptable" and made a motion to instead extend it for 90 days. After County Counsel Matthew Granger recommended keeping the 10 month, 15-day extension proposal in place — with the goal of having staff prepare a draft permanent ordinance within 90 days — Barrios' motion failed when she and Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz were out-voted by supervisors Jerry Muenzer, Anthony Botelho and Robert Rivas. Rivas then motioned for the 10 month, 15-day extension and that was approved 4-1, with De La Cruz joining the majority.

Barrios said the San Benito Business Council planned to meet with the various homeowners' associations in Ridgemark to help broker a deal, to which Rivas said that "a couple kindergarten teachers would do better" in a situation where "communication is more than broken" between the Ridgemark owners and residents. "I'm glad the Business Council has decided to step up, but I'm not optimistic. I would hope some resolution would occur. I want to see the quality of life be preserved, but I understand the Kheriotis's have a business plan. It needs to be communicated in a way so we can establish a positive relationship moving forward."

Botelho said he was "a little bit disappointed today" that the Kheriotis's did not say "why don't we take a step back and put the ball in the homeowners' court and try to develop dialogue that way? It doesn't sit well with me. Now is the time to start building some sort of relationship."

Adam Breen

Adam Breen has been a San Benito County resident since 1980 and graduated from Sacred Heart School and San Benito High School before earning a bachelor's degree from California State University, Fresno. A father of two sons, Adam has taught newspaper, English and yearbook at SBHS for the past decade, after six years as a magazine editor for Santa Clara University. He previously was editor of the Hollister Free Lance and content director for BenitoLink.