Visalia discusses revising valley oak tree ordinance

Ben Irwin

Tree failures, appeals on removal denial prompt city to look at long-standing ordinance protecting valley oak trees

VISALIA – Once covering over 400 square miles across central California, valley oak trees are the symbol of Visalia, home to the largest remaining swath of it’s kind. However, the tree’s strong and enforced protection under city ordinance since 1971 has recently created issues for some businesses and homeowners concerned with property damage or personal injury. The Visalia City Council revisited the ordinance at the March 1 council meeting and made recommendations for moving forward.

The discussion comes after multiple instances of tree limbs breaking and appeals on decisions to protect the deciduous valley oaks within Visalia. In 2020, 58 requests for valley oak tree removal were granted, while seven requests were denied.

City staff said valley oak tree removal can be anywhere from $1,000 to $6,000 in Visalia, which currently comes with a costly mitigation fee determined by the size of the tree being removed that is put into the city’s mitigation fund, which is designated for low-income assistance for owners to trim valley oak trees on their property. Pruning can also be expensive due to the requirement to hire a certified arborist to prune valley oaks in Visalia—Councilmember Brett Taylor said he cut a check for roughly $7,000 for pruning work on his property.

The city estimated there are around 1,600 valley oaks on public property maintained by the city and around 2,000 privately owned valley oaks, including trees adjacent to private property, for which property owners are legally responsible for.

Among the revisions to the ordinance were multiple additional fees, including adding to the removal form fee—currently a flat $125 inspection fee—$50 for each additional tree on the same property being assessed, and adding a $100 appeal fee for processing oak tree appeals. City staff also proposed to allow removals without mitigation—planting new trees—as well as considerations of removals based on economic hardship and the use of mitigation funds for tree removal.

Councilmember Brian Poochigian highlighted a scenario he believes many Visalians face, where a previous property owner may have planted a valley oak on the property decades ago. By the time the new property owner moves in, the tree has grown so much that it’s hanging over the house, which can become a property damage and safety concern for the current property owner. He applauded city staff for their proposed ordinance revisions, providing more options for property owners who are legally responsible for valley oaks on their property.

“I think these changes are moving in the right direction for me personally,” Poochigian said, “I don’t want to get rid of all trees because I think that’s what beautifies our community. You go down Beverly Glen, Green Acres and you see the oak trees throughout the community—it’s part of our community and I don’t want to see that change.”

Councilmember Taylor, who works in the real estate industry, said trees are a huge selling factor for homes. He posed an alternate view, and said it would be “hard to find 20 new valley oaks that have been planted in the last 50 years.”

“That leads to me saying something is not working,” Taylor said. “I would be interested in just scrapping the whole policy all together, I think it’s had a negative effect on our community. Rather than seeing existing trees protected, we’re seeing them one by one disappearing and we are seeing absolutely no new trees.”

Taylor proposed an alternative option to incentivize and celebrate the valley oak through a type of registry web site, including requiring new build properties to plant oak trees on site.

“I think what we’re doing, it would help some people out, but I think people are still going to see fees,” Taylor said. “Fees, mitigation, and they are going to get confused and will still have the same issues they are having now…I would love to do something to celebrate our trees rather than just making rules and regulations for our community.”

Mayor Steve Nelsen agreed with Councilmember Taylor with regard to property rights, and said he thinks some of the proposed fees are counterproductive to what they are trying to accomplish.

“If the city comes and tells me what I can do with my tree on my property, I have an issue with that,” Nelsen said. “I also have an issue when you tack on additional fees when a homeowner is looking at having an inspection fee, a tear out the tree fee—which is exorbitant when you take out oak trees—and now if I want to appeal the decision, I’ve got to pay another fee.”

Nelsen added he’d like to see the rules for citizens be consistent with rules for the city.

“I don’t see that, and until I see that, I have a problem with adding additional fees on,” Nelsen said. “In all honesty, if the tree’s on my property, leave me alone and I’ll take care of my tree.”

During public comment, Visalian Peggy Lambert supported Nelsen’s notion of holding the city to the same rules as citizens. She said changing waterways and drought in Visalia have taken a toll on the Beverly Glen neighborhood’s beautiful oaks.

“I think the city needs to see if there is a way we can help our oak trees to survive,” Lambert said. “If Beverly Glen were to lose its oak trees it would be a very different neighborhood.”

Contrary to Councilmember Taylor’s comments, Councilmember Greg Collins said he thinks the city has done a good job of reforesting the city and planting valley oaks, although the city could not come up with an exact number. Collins said he attends Arbor Day in April every year, where he sees kids out planting trees.

“Visalia has been ‘Tree City USA’ for the last 35 years, people from all over the state comment on what a beautiful community it is,” Collins said. “Much of that is a result of our protection and planning of the oak trees.”

Collins said the ordinance also provides instruction for maintenance and pruning and in the past poor pruning would lead to the demise of healthy valley oaks.

Collins and Vice Mayor Phil Cox both agreed that increasing the limit for unregulated tree removal from 2 inches in Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) to 24 inches is too much—equating a 24-inch diameter valley oak to about a 50-year-old tree—and recommended finding a number somewhere in the middle.

Staff was directed on a 3-2 motion passed to bring back a modified version of the ordinance, reducing the proposed 24-inch DBH to 18 inches and waiving the fee for review. Nelsen and Taylor were the opposing votes.

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