Sunday, June 17 , 2018, 11:46 pm | Fair 56º


Randy Alcorn: Treeing Petty Tyrants Nurturing Santa Barbara’s Tree Ordinance

Considering the most desirable criteria of livability, one can make a cogent case that Santa Barbara is, if not the best place on earth, certainly among the best places. The singularly spectacular ambience of the community has been carefully managed and vigilantly protected by various cadres of concerned citizens who often impose their concerns through local government.

Never content to leave well-enough alone, certain of these cadres are always seeking to polish the jewel, to make it even more shining and perfect. In this effort, however, there is a fulcrum upon which good intentions balance against busybody tyrannies. The City of Santa Barbara’s tree ordinance is prima facie evidence of the latter. (Scroll down for more information on the ordinance.)

That ordinance prohibits city residents from removing the trees on their property or from trimming them by more than one fourth without a permit from the city. As you might imagine, what constitutes one fourth of a tree’s volume can be quite subjective. That subjectivity provides city bureaucrats with great leverage in applying the ordinance, and, given the defects of human psychology, such subjectivity can and does result in arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement by the city’s bureaucrats.

Just such an instance was recently heard in Santa Barbara County Superior Court where a man charged with trimming a tree without a permit was ruled not guilty by the judge, who recognized the inherent capriciousness of the ordinance’s application.

But this was a minor victory against petty tyranny. The greater battle is over the freedom of citizens to the quiet enjoyment of their own property. While there is no question that reasonable zoning regulations and building codes have made and maintained Santa Barbara into the urban jewel that it is, there is a point when regulations become not only arbitrary and intrusive but also inimical to fundamental civil rights.

When someone buys a property, he or she owns the trees on that property. And, any trees that property owner plants on his or her property also belong to the property owner. The concept of the urban forest does not entitle government to eminent domain rights over trees on private property. Private property belongs to individuals, not to the community.

If a tree on private property is becoming a nuisance, for instance damaging plumbing or interfering with a view, or is no longer in the owner’s garden plans, it is the owner’s right to remove or trim that tree any way he or she likes — without permission from the government.

The owner does not share ownership of that tree with the city. The city paid nothing to plant or maintain that tree. That tree may not have existed except for the property owner’s efforts and money. What right, then, does government have to punish anyone for doing anything with their property that does no real, direct harm to someone else?

If Santa Barbara’s busybodies are so concerned about the city’s ambience, they would do better to direct their concern toward the city’s homeless and gang problems rather than prosecute citizens for pruning their own trees. And, why is it OK for the city to take out mature trees along city streets, but an imprisonable offense for citizens to remove trees from their own property?

The main issue here is not the definition of excessive trimming of a tree, but what right city government has in effectively confiscating private property by dictating what property owners can and cannot do with their own trees. If the city wants an urban forest, it can plant more trees on public property or encourage property owners to plant trees on their private property.

With its meddlesome tree ordinance — its “war on gardeners” — the City of Santa Barbara oversteps the reasonable boundaries of governance and follows the disturbing trend of government increasingly intruding on personal freedom.

Santa Barbara’s tree ordinance should be challenged repeatedly until it is either struck down by a high court or until the city’s petty tyrants are hounded up a tree by the incessant lawsuits. Maybe a legal fund can be started to finance the lawsuits.

Better yet, elect people to the city council who will rescind such egregiously intrusive ordinances and restrain the busybodies from wreaking further mischief on property rights and personal freedoms.

Within a community, there will rarely be complete consensus as to what is blight and what is charming patina. An American city cannot remain compliant with constitutional rights while behaving like an exclusive gated community replete with covenants and restrictions that narrowly define aesthetics.

— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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