Looking up at the canopy of a California Sycamore.

On Tuesday, May 5, the Board of Supervisors will consider whether to adopt a new Zoning Code Update the County calls “Orange is the New Green.” This update has been nearly four years in the making, advanced by a Sustainability Planning Grant from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG).

The objective is to “green” the County’s Zoning Code.

So, what better reason is there to adopt policies to protect our greenest natural resource – trees?

You might be surprised to learn the County of Orange doesn’t have a tree preservation policy. In fact, it is the only county in the six-county SCAG region that lacks a protective measure for its native trees. The SCAG region encompasses Orange, Riverside, Imperial, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties. That’s right: each of these counties – except Orange County – protects its native trees.

Our non-profit, Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, spearheaded the effort for the County to adopt a tree preservation policy back in 2016.

A new policy would mean our native oaks, sycamores, willows, cottonwood, alders, Tecate cypress, and black walnut trees are afforded protections. Right now, they’re completely vulnerable. No state law preserves them either.

This lack of protection became startlingly clear when a development project known as “Saddle Crest” in rural unincorporated Trabuco Canyon “replaced” 150 mature oak trees with 65 upscale homes. The strategy to fix this tree loss was to plant acorns, which must thrive long enough to become saplings, and then take decades to grow to the same size as those lost.

The Saddle Crest development removed scores of mature trees and replaced them with acorns. Credit: Melanie Schlotterbeck

If a tree preservation policy would have been in place, the developer likely would have had to work around more of those native trees, leaving more mature trees to remain on the property and new ones planted to offset the impacts of the project.

The proposed tree preservation policy in the Zoning Code Update will only apply to parcels 20,000 square feet and greater. That’s about a half-acre. And the rules would not apply to trees maintained by the County, trees on lands in fuel modification areas, trees needing emergency removal, diseased trees, and other exemptions. The exceptions practically swallow the rule, but some protections are better than none.

As is often the case with negotiating new legislation (think “sausage-making”), the language has been whittled down so much that it will only apply to the Silverado-Modjeska canyon area. We support that. However, we also support expanding the geography to include the Foothill-Trabuco canyon area and unincorporated lands above Brea. These are places where native trees abound.

Woodpeckers and other wildlife use trees for a variety of reasons. Credit: Melanie Schlotterbeck

It’s time for Orange County to join its sister counties in protecting trees as aesthetic and ecological resources, habitat for wildlife, and providing water sequestration, oxygen release, and carbon sequestration to counteract greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

As the draft policy pronounces, trees lend beauty and charm to the manmade landscape and enhance the value of property and the character of the communities in which they exist.

We urge the Board of Supervisors to adopt the tree preservation language as part of the “Orange is the New Green” Zoning Code Update and to slightly expand its geographic scope to the Foothill-Trabuco canyon area in the 3rd District and the lands above Brea in the 4th District. If you agree, you may want to put in a call to your supervisor before the vote on May 5.

Gloria Sefton is an Orange County attorney practicing in the life sciences industry. A rural canyon advocate active in conservation and environmental concerns, she co-founded the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy and is also Vice President of Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks. 

Melanie Schlotterbeck is a conservation and land use consultant for regional non-profits throughout California. For Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks she has been the Green Vision Coordinator for nearly 16 years and manages multiple conservation coalitions for its policy work.

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