Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - January 13, 2012

Protecting the trees

City ordinance offers status, but residents required to maintain trees

by Angela Johnston

Barbara Roberts and the residents of Palo Alto's San Alma townhome community had no idea what their 60-foot-tall elm tree's heritage status implied until its limbs fell off one winter.

The residents of San Alma have come together to preserve their heritage elm after realizing that even though they have a city-protected tree on their property, they have to maintain it independently.

"I'm surprised. I thought if the city wanted the tree to be safe they would handle the work. We came together to pay for it out of our own budget," says Roberts, San Alma's landscape chair.

Roberts isn't alone in her confusion. City arborist Dave Dockter says in a city known for its trees, he's surprised Palo Alto residents are unsure whether or not their leafy giants are regulated. Dockter wants to clarify the tree ordinance and highlight the importance of protected trees in Palo Alto.

Dockter was recruited in 1997 by the same city council that launched the tree ordinance in 1996. He explains that the ordinance breaks down into three distinct categories. The first category is protected trees, which works to conserve three species native to the region. Coastal redwoods, valley oaks and coastal live oaks receive special treatment under the ordinance. The city's seven heritage trees also reside under the "protected tree" label.

Dockter refers to the second category as "street trees," or all public trees that grow on city land. The third category covers "designated trees" on non-residential property.

Each category has different regulations. If homeowners have protected trees on their property, they have an inherent responsibility to protect the tree. If a homeowner wants to remove a protected tree, he or she needs a permit.

"The city does not function as police, however. There isn't oak tree sheriff. Our code enforcement operates by complaint," Dockter says.

Remedies for tree violations depend on which tree is harmed and how it's harmed.

"Over the years, there have been a few removals of oak trees without permits and in a few cases, the city attorney required a settlement of the trees' values," Dockter says.

Dockter says the city gets 200 removal permits per year and very rarely denies any requests. However, Dockter explains there are many advantages to having a protected tree on your property.

The owners of heritage trees in Palo Alto had clear benefits in mind when they applied for recognition, he says.

"Some want recognition for the tree and for themselves," Dockter says. Others want to protect their trees from future development.

Residents can nominate their trees for heritage status by writing to the city council with photographs and notes from an arborist.

A tree may be designated as "heritage" because it's an outstanding specimen of a desirable species, one of the largest or oldest trees in Palo Alto, or any tree that possesses distinctive form, location or historical significance.

Barbara Carlitz's 80-year-old Aleppo pine is heritage tree number seven and was recognized by the Palo Alto City Council in 2004.

"It's a gorgeous looking hunk," Carltiz says. "I love how it filters the afternoon sun and it's the best example of an Aleppo pine in the city."

Carlitz had a practical and urgent reason to apply for heritage designation.

"The house next door was undergoing a renovation and there was no real guarantee who would move in. I wanted some degree of safety for the tree and didn't want to come home one day to find guys chain-sawing it," Carlitz says. "Luckily the people who bought the house are equally fond of the tree."

The San Alma residents have also avoided disputes over their elm.

"We all love it, including the bees and the squirrels. We have 35 buildings in our community and there isn't one person who would like to see that tree gone," Roberts says.

Ric Rudman, a case mediator for the Palo Alto Mediation Program (PAMP) says Carlitz and the residents of San Alma are lucky because tree disputes are some of the most popular neighbor-to-neighbor grievances.

Overall, 10 percent of PAMP's cases are tree disputes.

"That's a pretty significant number, especially in a place like Palo Alto where people love their trees," Rudman says.

Usually, the solutions involve discussing a way to trim the tree and share the costs. Rudman says he has yet to resolve any protected-tree disputes.

Mary Starner decided to apply for heritage status for her silver maple in 2001.

Previous neighbors initially protested the tree, Starner says, because anyone who moves next door has to stick to the house's original footprint and can't dig or harm the roots.

"That was one of the reasons I wanted to protect it," Starner says. "I'd hate to see someone tear it down."

Dockter says disputes almost always arise because someone is misinformed. "Very rarely do we have a case where there's a diabolical person who wants to sneak into a neighbor's yard and cut down their tree," he says.

Starner is happy to have the free air-conditioning provided by the shade of her heritage tree and isn't bothered by the piles of crunchy orange leaves that cover her yard each winter.

Upon receiving designation, Starner, Carltiz, Roberts and other owners of heritage trees are required to maintain the tree according to standards of care, practice and stewardship outlined by the city.

Carlitz says it ends up costing her more than $1,000 per year to maintain her tree.

"With the heritage designation, I promised to do lots of good things for the tree — I almost see it as a form of public service — yet the city seems to take little interest in fostering a relationship with its heritage trees after it designates them," Carlitz says.

Dockter says he thinks that one of the reasons the heritage tree program hasn't been as popular or supported in recent years is because it doesn't have a high-profile online.

"The heritage tree program has certainly been a casualty of our website," Dockter says.

Nevertheless, Dockter is proud of Palo Alto's tree ordinance, especially the protected species.

"Trees contribute so significantly to the character that Palo Alto residents love to live and work in," Dockter says. "That's why they need to continue to be protected."

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