San Benito County officially decided Tuesday to make permanent an ordinance that restricts the removal of mature trees countywide.
In a 4-1 vote, with Board Chair Margie Barrios opposed, the Board of Supervisors approved the additional protection of local trees, stemming from an ongoing dispute in the Ridgemark development south of Hollister.
The approval by the board amends the seventh article — "Tree Protection" — of the 25th chapter of the San Benito County Code, now expected to "protect and preserve mature trees" in single-family residential ("R1") and residential multiple ("RM") districts.
Also, the new rules specifically define tree: "Any living tree" boasting a trunk of eight or more inches in diameter, or any multi-trunk tree having an aggregate diameter of ten or more inches, either of which must stand no less than four and a half feet tall, is subjected to the new regulation, according to the ordinance, which exempts some varieties, such as various producers of fruits and nuts. Chopping down any of the trees identified by the code could require an official permit.
In public session April 7, residents of Ridgemark as well as the majority of supervisors supported countywide adoption of the permanent prevention or limitation of what an environmental review called "needless degradation and destruction of mature trees." Also, speakers cited the importance of trees for the community's vibrance.
"Some people have said that it's Ridgemark's tree ordinance," said Tarasa Bettencourt, the president of Ridgemark Homes Association. "Yes, it's for residents of Ridgemark, but also residents of San Benito County."
"We need something like this in place," said Supervisor Anthony Botehlo, who said in public session that he considered himself a tree person. "This board has observed what has happened to bring this ordinance forward. I think that it's time to make it permanent."
Supervisor Jerry Muenzer, who represents residents of the Ridgemark community, noted additional risk to local trees as a result of a statewide shortage of fresh water.
"I want to say that on my own ranch, I'm noticing a lot of oak trees naturally dying because of the drought," said Muenzer. "We are losing trees. Anything that we can do to protect the trees that we do have needs to be put in place."
JMK Golf President Alex Kehriotis, who also noted significant exposure to negative impacts caused by the drought, told BenitoLink in a statement April 7 that his group opposes the ban on the removal of mature trees, which also could pose risks to health, safety, liability and property values.
While some of Ridgemark's residents have alleged that the owner of the golf course brought down longstanding trees to develop more homes in the neighborhood, JMK claimed that the tree-cutting aimed to prevent uncontrolled collapse. The county previously said that any tree at risk of a fall stood outside the ordinance.
"We voiced our concerns to the Board of Supervisors, both on an individual basis and at public meetings," said Kehriotis. "We do not agree with the ordinance, as it removes private property rights and is very costly and burdensome not just to us but to all affected property owners. That being said, JMK GOLF LLC has and will continue to comply the regulations."
Kehriotis noted that JMK Golf remains in a tentative contract to sell Ridgemark Golf and Country Club.
"We arranged a meeting back in late February to introduce our buyer to the president and the board of directors for Ridgemark Homes Association at their attorney's office in San Jose," said Kehriotis. "By all accounts the meeting went well. The buyer seemingly dazzled them with his vision for the future of Ridgemark."
Kehriotis added that since that time, however, the company has not settled litigation with the homeowners' association, which allegedly had proposed what JMK Golf called an "unreasonable and unrealistic" offer for a settlement.
"We sent them a counter settlement proposal and are still waiting to hear back," said Kehriotis.
Ridgemark Homes Association declined a BenitoLink request for a comment.