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An uprooted decision

Controversial tree plan approved, appealed

Plan proposes to use funds to manage woodlands
By: Joyia Emard, Loomis News Staff Writer
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A controversial plan for managing oak woodlands in a private development has stirred things up in Loomis. Loomis planning commissioners recently approved a novel woodland management plan for Sierra de Montserrat, which councilman Walt Scherer appealed on June 9. Scherer said his reason for filing is “this is a precedent-setting plan that involves the expenditure of town funds. So, it's appropriate that the town council be the body that makes the decision on the expenditure of funds." Loomis resident Roger Smith was impressed with the plan, but called it “complex” and “subjective.” “It protects more than just oaks. It protects cottonwoods and pines,” Smith said. Planning commissioners, two council members, town staff and interested citizens made a site visit to Montserrat as part of the May 29 planning commission meeting. The meeting then reconvened at town hall for a discussion and vote. Plan approval was moved by Commissioner Jean Wilson and seconded by commissioner Greg Obranovich. All commissioners, except Janet Thew, voted in favor of the plan. Gary Liss, chairman of the Loomis Parks and Open Space Commission, posed a question to planning commissioners before their vote. “What is at stake?” he asked, referring to the dollar figure the town would receive if the existing tree ordinance were applied. Pat Miller wanted to know, “What are you giving up to get this?” At stake are thousands of dollars of tree-cutting mitigation fees, possibly in the $155,000-range, according to Restoration Resources, creators of the new plan. These fees would normally go into a town-controlled fund. Instead, the new plan proposed that fees would be held by Wildlife Heritage Foundation, the conservation easement stewards, and would be used to restore, preserve and improve the woodlands on 159 acres of wetland and woodland easements located on private lots in the 62-home development. The protected woodlands can only by residents and only for passive recreation, such as hiking. The development’s Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions also prohibit property owners from fencing their property perimeters, allowing wildlife to roam freely. According to a report created by town staff on the proposed Sierra de Montserrat Oak Mitigation and Monitoring Plan, town tree arborist Ken Menzer approves of the new plan. The staff report stated his approval was “based on the concept that has been evolving within the State, that oak woodlands management is a better long-term overall strategy than simply receiving in-lieu funds … because generally much of the replanting is not occurring and retaining good quality, connected woodlands is better than replanting in inappropriate or dissimilar areas.” According to town manager Perry Beck, the Town of Loomis holds approximately $268,000 in its tree mitigation fund, most of which was collected during the 2005-2006 fiscal year when a lot of development and tree cutting occurred. Beck said the money could be used to purchase land with trees on it or for land where trees can be planted. The funds can also be spent on tree-related expenses, such as arborist reports, and for the purchase and planting of trees. Beck stated that Loomis currently has no plans for how the money will be spent, although the Parks and Open Space commission has been charged to create a plan. The town staff report also states that the new plan agrees with the town’s 2001 General Plan “to protect oak woodlands and significant stands of native trees.” Riley Swift and Chad Aakre, of Restoration Resources, developed the new tree plan for Curt Westwood, the property developer. It calls for the conservation and perpetual stewardship of the woodlands as well as the preservation, enhancement and restoration of oak woodland habitat and open areas located within the easements. Restoration projects would include the planting, maintenance and establishment of native trees, shrubs and grasses. Swift and Aakre said the enhancement could include removal of diseased trees, ladder fuel and invasive and exotic weed and shrub species. It may also include the removal of small, downed trees and the thinning out of stands to enable healthy trees to grow. “We protect the stand not an individual tree,” Aaker said. He said the plan promotes “wildlife diversity” and “habitat enhancement” and protects the tree canopy. It also eliminates fire fuel that could cause the destruction of the entire woodland in a fire. The complicated plan calls for fees from Montserrat homeowners, who will be allowed to remove trees in the portion of the site where development will be allowed. Homeowners would still pay the town for permit fees and arborist reports, but their mitigation fees would be paid to Wildlife Heritage Foundation. Sierra de Montserrat is located between Barton, Wells and Laird roads and encompasses 322 acres. Besides the woodland and wetland easements, 45 acres are held in an agricultural easement for vineyards. According to Beck, the earliest the appeal would be heard by the council is at their July 8 meeting.