Big redwood trees to be protected

Publication Date: Wednesday Jan 31, 2001

ENVIRONMENT: Big redwood trees to be protected

City strengthens ordinance for species on private property

by Bill D'Agostino

Neighbors called it "the gateway to our community." It provided shade, drank up rain water, and made the block more attractive. But the new homeowner was threatening to remove the grand redwood tree on their Martin Avenue property.

Last week, the Palo Alto City Council unanimously agreed to add such redwoods to the list of trees protected by city ordinance. Previously, the ordinance only protected two varieties of oak trees.

The revised ordinance states that all redwood trees (species Sequoia sempervirens) 18 inches in diameter and larger are under city protection. A tree 18 inches in diameter is approximately 20 years old, although the exact age of a tree is hard to figure.

Not everyone was pleased with the council's move. Palo Alto homeowner Jean Wilcox testified against the ordinance.

"I'm not opposed to redwoods; I love them," she said afterward, "I'm opposed to the city passing ordinances that interfere with what people can do on their own private property."

Councilman Jim Burch felt differently. He said he supported the measure after hearing complaints from residents. He sees redwood preservation as a responsibility of the city. "Cutting down a tree has an impact on the whole neighborhood," he said, "It's a part of the community and is enjoyed by more than just the owner."

Not all redwoods will be protected. Trees that are dead, dying, or inhibiting the growth of other protected trees will be exempt. Homeowners can apply for a permit for their removal.

The city also allows for unusual circumstances, such as when a tree's growth risks damage to an existing home. "We want there to be some flexibility in the law," Burch said. In such cases, the city arborist will have jurisdiction.

To comply with the new ordinance, homeowners who apply for renovation or demolition permits will have to list any redwood trees (as well as coast live oak and valley oak) on their property.

Anyone who removes a protected tree faces a fine of $5,000 or the value of a replacement tree, whichever is higher. Some trees can be priced as high as $30,000, depending on their age.

All local arborists have been notified, making it unlikely anyone will have assistance in illegally removing a tree.

Redwoods are an important part of Palo Alto lore. A redwood tree is the central focus of the city seal. It serves as the Stanford mascot. There are also five specially designated heritage trees in the city. The most famous being "El Palo Alto," which lent its name to the city.

Before last week's vote, the city manager conducted an outreach program to gauge public opinion. Over 90 percent of responses were in favor of protection--an impressive figure which helped solidify the council's support.

Many other local cities have laws that protect larger trees. Redwood City not only protects trees from removal, they also require review for pruning.

Atherton, Burlingame, Campbell, Carmel, Hillsborough, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Menlo Park, Monte Sereno, Mountain View, Pleasanton, San Jose, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Saratoga, and Sunnyvale also limit the removal of all larger trees.

Howell Lovell is the executive director of Canopy, a local nonprofit group that educates the community about the urban forest. He hopes the city can slowly add new trees to the ordinance, as long as the public agrees. "You feel sad when a 100-year-old sycamore is cut down because someone doesn't like the leaves on his front lawn."

"I don't want them to expand the ordinance," Wilcox responded, "It's looking into our back yard and telling us what we can and cannot do."

As for that tree on the corner of Lincoln and Martin? It received a last-minute pardon, even before last week's vote. Bowing to neighborhood and city pressure, the homeowners agreed to adjust their plans to maneuver around the local landmark.

"When the building can be built and the tree saved," Lovell stated, "that's the best of both worlds." 

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