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The Buena Vista Board of Trustees voted five to one to approve Ordinance 2023-19 to update the Town Municipal Code’s guidelines on cutting, removing, or planting trees on public property. Trustee Andrew Rice was the sole dissenting vote.

The change comes after a Vegetation and Wildfire Mitigation plan by Sangre de Cristo Electric Association (SDCEA) caused concern among residents of Buena Vista, who like their town’s tree cover and felt blindsided by what some felt was a extreme cutting plan that might take out historic trees.

The Board of Trustees met in a work session to hear from SDCEA, the Tree Advisory Board, and the BV Tree Coalition prior to their regular meeting on August 22. At the meeting, SDCEA Interim CEO Gary Kelly said the mitigation plan was consistent with SDCEA’s mission to provide reliable energy safely and described it as acceptable industry practice.

Sangre de Cristo Electric Association. Courtesy logo

At the September 26 meeting, Kelly spoke during public comment against the proposed changes to the town code. “We see this as a solution in search of a problem,” said Kelly.

Kelly cited SDCEA’s long history of working with the town, including cutting and maintaining trees without the need to seek a permit, and the established franchise agreement between the company and the town as reasons against the changes.

SDCEA’s vegetation management plan was set to begin in early 2024 and Kelly assured the Board that no work would be done without giving the town a chance to review the plan. Kelly asked that the Board either reject the proposed ordinance or wait to allow further consideration.

Buena Vista resident Jo Reese spoke during public comment in favor of caution when considering the cutting of potentially historic town trees. “Let’s agree to perform the appropriate due diligence before this irreversible decision,” said Reese.

The approved changes affect Sections 11-82 and 11-83 of the municipal code.

Town Attorney Jeff Parker explained the purpose of the ordinance, which applies to any entity attempting to plant, cut, or remove trees on public property. It establishes a permit process, which requires approval from the Town Administrator and requires the consideration of a set of factors prior to approval.

The factors include the impact of the proposed activity on the appearance of the town or the environment, and whether the purpose of the proposed activity could be achieved through alternative, less impactful methods.

Essentially, the changes require that any entity provide plans to the Town before irreversibly cutting or removing trees on town property. An annual permit is possible for organizations like SDCEA, making the process less onerous for them.

“It protects the town against a universal, unilateral decision by anyone to cut a tree on Town property,” said Parker, who assured that the code update was consistent with what was already happening with SDCEA as the Town and the electric company have had positive conversations since the work session in August.

Trustee Andrew Rice spoke out against passing the ordinance on Tuesday. He explained that he wasn’t against passing it necessarily, but if given a choice between “yes, no, and not yet” he would choose not yet because of the timing with SDCEA’s Vegetation and Wildfire Mitigation plan.

Rice explained that he felt the timing made it appear the Town was expecting the worst from SDCEA and creating an adversarial tone for talks that were already positive and ongoing.

Trustee Devin Rowe expressed understanding of Rice and Kelly’s position but explained that this was a proactive step to avoid issues with anyone in the future, not just a targeted response to SDCEA. “I think a lot of things that we have to vote on in town have to be voted on after something already happened,” said Rowe. “This is a proactive thing.”

Trustee Peter Hylton-Hinga verified with Parker that SDCEA would still be able to address hazardous trees should the need arise.

Parker confirmed that SDCEA could get a permit for hazardous trees on day one and explained that the idea behind the code would easily allow that, though the specific details would need to be worked out when the permit is first issued. After that, SDCEA could renew the permit every year with minimal changes if there were no issues.

Trustees Sue Cobb and Gina Lucrezi agreed that the process wouldn’t be unduly difficult for SDCEA but would also provide assurances to residents of the town concerned about trees by creating protections in the form of checks and balances.

In the end, Rowe moved to approve the ordinance and Cobb seconded the motion. All voted yes except for Rice who indicated his earlier expressed concerns over tone as the reason for his dissent.