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STIFFER PENALTIES SOUGHT FOR FELLING OAK TREES.

Byline: Sherry Joe Crosby Daily News Staff Writer

Efforts to crack down on violators of the county's oak tree ordinance have been largely unsuccessful, say environmentalists and county officials who claim the law has no teeth and violations are difficult to prove in court.

Critics said the ordinance, which makes it illegal to cut down oaks measuring at least 8 inches in diameter 4-1/2 feet above the ground, should have stiffer penalties for violators who would rather risk a $1,000 fine per tree than obtain a county permit that can cost up to $7,000.

``It's cheaper to cut the tree down than bother going through the process of saving them,'' said Lynne Plambeck, first vice president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment.

The issue of lax enforcement arose earlier this month when Agoura Hills-based developer Dale Poe Development Corp. paid a $71,800 mitigation fee to cover the loss of two centuries-old oak trees that were illegally cut down last year to make way for a road through the Stevenson Ranch subdivision. Dale Poe is now seeking permits to remove two more oaks in the same area.

The Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission, which oversees changes to the ordinance, is so worried about the lack of enforcement that it plans to address the issue in January. The county forester and fire warden also plan to draw up a list of recommended changes to the ordinance, county zoning administrator John Schwarze said.

Part of the problem with the ordinance, critics said, is that it is costly, time consuming and difficult to prove in court that someone illegally cut down an oak tree.

``It's difficult to get the district attorney to take the case to court,'' said Schwarze, adding that prosecutors must first determine who cut down the tree and whether he or she worked for the property owner.

``The only way to successfully prosecute it is to find out who cut down the tree,'' Schwarze said. ``This is a very unfortunate and difficult situation.''

He said many property owners, especially those who want to develop small lots, would rather run the risk of illegally removing a tree than pay county fees that can cost between $6,000 and $7,000.

``The worst that can happen to a developer who illegally cuts down a tree is a $1,000 fine,'' Schwarze said. ``It's more worthwhile to cut down the tree. If you lose, you pay $1,000 and away you go.''

Environmentalists also said lax enforcement by an overburdened Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is partly to blame for repeated violation of the ordinance.

``There's always been a problem with enforcing the oak ordinance,'' Plambeck said. ``We need to educate the Sheriff's Department. The sheriff looks at an oak tree crime as something that's not very important.''

But sheriff's officials and their supporters said they are doing their best to enforce the ordinance.

``If we become aware of a violation, we'll do something about it,'' said Lt. Steve Dolan of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's station.

Cynthia Neal-Harris, vice president of the Santa Clarita Oak Conservancy, agreed.

``They have tons and tons of ordinances,'' she said of sheriff's deputies. ``As an environmentalist, one of our jobs is to alert them that they have an ordinance. The sheriff has a lot of heavy-duty crimes. They can't worry about someone illegally taking an oak out.''

Environmentalists said it's important to save oaks because they're the last living link between the past and the present. Some oaks in Pico Canyon, where Stevenson Ranch developers want to build a road, are hundreds of years old.

``They're part of our heritage, part of what our community is about,'' Neal-Harris said. ``Those trees were here before our Constitution.''

Cutting down oaks is a longstanding tradition in the Santa Clarita Valley, said Paul Higgins, an environmental educator who teaches local schoolchildren about the importance and history of oaks.

``Two hundred years ago, there were thousands of oaks in the Santa Clarita Valley,'' Higgins said, noting that most were cut down as fuel for wood-burning trains and as materials for ships, barns, houses, wagons and bridges.

Those that are left now face danger from developers who look at oak-dotted hills and envision subdivisions and mini-malls. Neal-Harris said she wants to see developers make oaks a part of their planning from the blueprint stages.

``We need to let the developer draw around the oak trees, not cut around them,'' she said, ``so the oak tree is the centerpiece of their development. It saves them money, it saves them time. It's aesthetically pleasing and provides shade for hot summer days.''
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 30, 1996
Words:774
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