It's happened again: A long-standing redwood that residents in one Palo Alto neighborhood have come to love has been cut down to make way for development, causing some to question why the city's Heritage Tree ordinance didn't protect it.
On March 3, a city sign appeared on a majestic, four-trunk redwood at the corner of Laguna and La Para avenues in the Barron Park neighborhood, stating the tree would be removed for "improvements."
The city's Heritage Tree ordinance specifically prohibits removal of trees of a certain size and species, including those with a trunk diameter 18 inches or greater, which the La Para tree had.
But although redwoods are Category 1 protected trees in the city, some redwoods and oaks can be removed under certain conditions, including if the roots interfere with a home's foundation or, in the case of the La Para redwood, if the tree infringes on a property's building area by more than 25 percent, according to city Urban Forester Walter Passmore.
A tree can also be removed if it is a hazard or a public nuisance.
The debate over personal property rights and broader city obligations to protect the city's mature trees has grown in recent years as owners opt to build out their properties. In Barron Park, residents said the removal of old trees is changing the quality of their semi-rural neighborhood.
Neighbor John Fredrich viewed the tree's demise as an example of how the city is allowing homeowners too much leeway in building out properties to the maximum at the expense of a neighborhood's way of life.
"That was one of the best multi-trunk redwoods in town and very healthy and already pruned away from the utility wires at some cost over many years," Fredrich said.
But Passmore explained in an email that the tree was, in fact, decaying; utility-line pruning had harmed it. The redwood also interfered with the construction of a new home with a basement. Keeping the tree would have required a 50-foot protection zone, Passmore said.
But the La Para homeowner is required to replace the redwood with six trees, he added.
Catherine Martineau, executive director of urban forestry nonprofit Canopy, said that cutting down large trees is a concern but agreed there can be valid reasons. Although beautiful and iconic, redwoods' height -- the very attribute that makes redwoods endearing -- can become a nuisance, she said. When planting trees on their properties, residents should keep in mind how big that tree might become in the future, she added.
In the case of the La Para tree, as painful as it has been to see it go, the permit was issued a year ago and conformed to the ordinance, she said.
Barron Park resident Jon Aderhold said he understands the reasons the tree was removed.
"With regard to the redwood trees, I have to say that they are not totally suitable for typical-sized city lots. I have four on my lot, and the one that is closest to the house is sending out massive roots that will eventually heave my foundation and destroy my carport.
"The other three have already broken my brick patio and a brick sidewalk, both of which are laid on a 4-inch steel-reinforced concrete pad," he said.
The trees were on the property when he and his late wife purchased the home in 1967, he added.
But he said he understands the sadness people feel as large trees are felled and the character of the neighborhood changes.
"I mourn the passing of an era, but I don't fault the homeowners that are cutting down the redwoods on (La) Para," he said.