Did St. Michael's Abbey Cut Down Historic Orchard on Holtz Ranch Without Permits? Yes and No

What's with priests in the canyon wanting to cut down trees and kill wildlife? Isn't that like, a part of God's natural kingdom, and stuff? According to activists in Silverado Canyon, The Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael's Abbey don't seem to think so.

Last month, St. Michael's chopped down a whole orchard of avocado, walnut, and various other fruits trees on Holtz Ranch–and critics say they did it without obtaining necessary permits from the county. But the truth, as Jeremiah said, is always more interesting.


The Abbey is currently in the process of establishing their new monastery on the property, off on Silverado Canyon Road. St. Michael's purchased the pristine, 124-acre property a couple of years ago, a transaction that stirred up much controversy in the local community. When the Abbey purchased the property they planned to make it into what Silverado resident Sherry Meddick calls “Vatican West,” with a prep school, dorms, athletic field, and cemetery. Oddly enough, this all seems to go against the point of purchasing Holtz Ranch. The Abbey website states that the move will allow “the Fathers to conduct their mission at a more suitable rural and pastoral location.” Lack of adequate funding eventually forced them to scale back their plan.

Yet on Presidents Weekend of this year, canyon residents noticed that the holy men were chopping the orchard down. “We have a perennial problem with this kind of stuff in the canyon,” says Ray Chandos of the Rural Canyons Conversation Fund. “A hallmark is that they start on a weekend or holiday and wait until the county is closed.”

When Chandos found out, he complained to Code Enforcement and received a call from Supervisor Todd Spitzer in return. “He called me back, after a while, and agreed that I was right about the orchard trees,” he says. Spitzer told Chandos that The Abbey would now need a tree restoration plan to make up for the graded orchard.

It's not just about the vegetation though. No tree trimming or maintenance is supposed to go beyond March 15th of every year because of nesting season. But Meddick, an avid bird watcher, says that birds have begun nesting early this year to due our “winter” ending so soon. Cutting down trees at this time of year could be in violation of the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits the destruction of trees that are inhabited by nesting birds.

St. Michael's, however, told the Weekly that all is well. Even though Chandos says that community members have been keeping a watchful eye on permitting, Father Gregory Dick ensured us that code was followed–mostly. The Abbey said that they found no bird nests and were able to complete their grading before the March 15th deadline. And as far as stumping without a permit goes? Father Gregory says they're guilty of taking down only two trees that they shouldn't have.

“We intended to save at least 41 trees,” Father Gregory explains, “When I was marking the trees for removal, I accidentally identified two walnut trees on the north side of the old orchard that we did not want to remove. They were taken down to the stump, so now there are 39 trees in that area. When I walked the site with the County, I recognized my oversight.” Father Gregory also added that many of the trees in the orchard were “malnourished or diseased” and that the Abbey will plant many more new trees.

Canyon residents may overly scrutinize St. Michael's every move, but that doesn't make them pretentious nimbys. The only reason our canyon country still exists is because of these scrupulous folks. We'll just have to wait and see what the new Abbey actually becomes.

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