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Proposed Palo Alto law would triple number of 'protected' trees

City to expand roster of protected species, add new requirements for developers

A pedestrian walks by a liquidambar tree at the intersection of Cowper Street and Addison Avenue in Palo Alto on Oct. 19, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Palo Alto is preparing to pass a law next week that would roughly triple the number of trees classified as "protected" and create new requirements for developers and residents looking to uproot these trees.

The City Council will consider on Monday a new tree ordinance to add four native species that are currently not protected: bigleaf maple, incense cedar, blue oak and California black oak. These trees will join a list that already includes the coast live oak, the valley oak and the coast redwood.

More significantly, the new ordinance would specify that all these trees except the redwood would be deemed "protected" when their diameter is 11.5 inches, a standard that today only applies to the coast live oak and the valley oak. For the redwood, the diameter would need to be larger — at least 18 inches — to ensure its protected status. For all other tree species, the diameter threshold would become 15 inches, well below the current standard of 36 inches.

With the new rules in place, the number of private trees in Palo Alto's urban forest that would now be protected would go from the current level of 82,000 to 224,000, according to an analysis by the Department of Public Works. The city's urban forest, which does not include open space preserves, includes about 600,000 trees.

If the council approves the new rules as expected, it would complete a process that began in 2018 and proceeded in fits and starts before accelerating again last fall with the council's blessing. Since early April, the ordinance has gone through numerous public hearings and earned the endorsement of both the city's Architectural Review Board and the Parks and Recreation Commission.

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Proponents of the change have argued that the update is long overdue. Even though the city of Palo Alto is named after a redwood tree, it continues to lag behind neighboring jurisdictions when it comes to tree protection, many have noted in recent meetings. Catherine Martineau, executive director of the nonprofit organization Canopy, which worked with the city on the update, was among them.

The new ordinance, she said at a recent meeting, aligns more closely now with what the rest of the region is doing. She described the city's tree canopy as "our only nature-based solution to combat climate change and mitigate the urban heat island effect."

"Residents very often contact Canopy with their concerns because sometimes they're not just concerned, they are distressed about the number of trees that are removed on a regular basis," Martineau said at the April 6 community meeting on the new ordinance. "Those residents know that it's the mature trees that cool the air.

"There's no other solution to lower ambient temperatures outside. Each time we lose a tree we lose a natural and beautiful air conditioner that operates on clean energy."

Under the new rules, residents would not be allowed to remove protected trees unless they are dead, crowding out adjacent protected trees or are causing damage to the foundation or eaves of a residence. Trees deemed hazardous or classified as public nuisance are also eligible for removal.

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While the city had initially proposed applying this only to primary residences, staff recently revised the ordinance to also include accessory-dwelling units and detached garages. In doing so, they addressed a concern from the public and from the Architectural Review Board that excluding accessory-dwelling units from protection could place the city in conflict with state law.

Developers who wish to remove protected trees for their projects would be required to demonstrate that there is no financially feasible alternative that would preserve the tree. If a project involves a subdivision, removal of protected trees would only be allowed to repair a geologic hazard, according to a report from Public Works.

"Overall, the combination of a significantly increased number of protected trees with more restrictive removal provisions during development is expected to preserve more trees but make development more challenging when trees are present," the report states.

Developers would also be required to hire an arborist from the city's list of designated arborists to complete tree-related reports associated with development applications, including tree disclosure statements and tree-preservation reports.

In this file photo, Walter Passmore, former urban forester for the city of Palo Alto, takes a closer inspection of a rotting oak tree located at El Palo Alto Park. Photo by Veronica Weber.

The new law also seeks to prevent situations in which someone removes a protected tree and then immediately tries to redevelop the property. A tree removal may now trigger a 36-month development moratorium, according to the ordinance, though the developer may propose mitigation measures to lift the moratorium early. A prior version of the proposed ordinance was more stringent on the topic of redevelopment and specified that the city "shall" impose such a moratorium.

Peter Gollinger, the city's urban forester, said the new law would also classify as protected any tree that is planted for carbon sequestration and storage purposes or to serve as a "replacement mitigation tree" as part of a condition for a development.

"So, if you're required to replace a removed protected tree with a new tree, those trees now become protected trees," Gollinger said at the April community meeting.

One key goal of the new ordinance, he said, is to better comply with new state laws pertaining to water conservation and wildfire prevention. Another goal is to bring the tree ordinance in alignment with Palo Alto's broad goals on sustainability and tree protection. Palo Alto's main land use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, calls for improving the overall distribution of citywide canopy cover, striving for getting 50% tree cover across the city, preserving trees and minimizing damage to trees due to construction-related activities.

Gollinger noted that the city's ordinance, which was initially passed in 1951, hasn't been updated since 2001.

"Our ordinance is old," he said. "It's been 21 years since we made any major changes to the ordinance."

Members of the city's Architectural Review Board and Parks and Recreation Commission all shared this sentiment. Peter Baltay, who serves on the architecture board, said that the city is overdue for a new ordinance.

"Palo Alto doesn't protect its trees properly," Baltay said at the board's April 21 review. "I've long felt that it's a shame that you can cut almost everything except a redwood and an oak with impunity, pretty much."

The Parks and Recreation Commission also strongly supported the effort, with commissioners Nellis Freeman and Jeff Greenfield both suggesting that the city treat the ordinance as a "living document" and revise it periodically.

"It may not be perfect from the outset, but it can be something that we can adopt and return to the commission to tweak as needed," Greenfield said at his commission's April 26 review. "Getting the changes adopted as soon as possible really is important for our trees.

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Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

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Proposed Palo Alto law would triple number of 'protected' trees

City to expand roster of protected species, add new requirements for developers

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Jun 1, 2022, 2:46 pm

Palo Alto is preparing to pass a law next week that would roughly triple the number of trees classified as "protected" and create new requirements for developers and residents looking to uproot these trees.

The City Council will consider on Monday a new tree ordinance to add four native species that are currently not protected: bigleaf maple, incense cedar, blue oak and California black oak. These trees will join a list that already includes the coast live oak, the valley oak and the coast redwood.

More significantly, the new ordinance would specify that all these trees except the redwood would be deemed "protected" when their diameter is 11.5 inches, a standard that today only applies to the coast live oak and the valley oak. For the redwood, the diameter would need to be larger — at least 18 inches — to ensure its protected status. For all other tree species, the diameter threshold would become 15 inches, well below the current standard of 36 inches.

With the new rules in place, the number of private trees in Palo Alto's urban forest that would now be protected would go from the current level of 82,000 to 224,000, according to an analysis by the Department of Public Works. The city's urban forest, which does not include open space preserves, includes about 600,000 trees.

If the council approves the new rules as expected, it would complete a process that began in 2018 and proceeded in fits and starts before accelerating again last fall with the council's blessing. Since early April, the ordinance has gone through numerous public hearings and earned the endorsement of both the city's Architectural Review Board and the Parks and Recreation Commission.

Proponents of the change have argued that the update is long overdue. Even though the city of Palo Alto is named after a redwood tree, it continues to lag behind neighboring jurisdictions when it comes to tree protection, many have noted in recent meetings. Catherine Martineau, executive director of the nonprofit organization Canopy, which worked with the city on the update, was among them.

The new ordinance, she said at a recent meeting, aligns more closely now with what the rest of the region is doing. She described the city's tree canopy as "our only nature-based solution to combat climate change and mitigate the urban heat island effect."

"Residents very often contact Canopy with their concerns because sometimes they're not just concerned, they are distressed about the number of trees that are removed on a regular basis," Martineau said at the April 6 community meeting on the new ordinance. "Those residents know that it's the mature trees that cool the air.

"There's no other solution to lower ambient temperatures outside. Each time we lose a tree we lose a natural and beautiful air conditioner that operates on clean energy."

Under the new rules, residents would not be allowed to remove protected trees unless they are dead, crowding out adjacent protected trees or are causing damage to the foundation or eaves of a residence. Trees deemed hazardous or classified as public nuisance are also eligible for removal.

While the city had initially proposed applying this only to primary residences, staff recently revised the ordinance to also include accessory-dwelling units and detached garages. In doing so, they addressed a concern from the public and from the Architectural Review Board that excluding accessory-dwelling units from protection could place the city in conflict with state law.

Developers who wish to remove protected trees for their projects would be required to demonstrate that there is no financially feasible alternative that would preserve the tree. If a project involves a subdivision, removal of protected trees would only be allowed to repair a geologic hazard, according to a report from Public Works.

"Overall, the combination of a significantly increased number of protected trees with more restrictive removal provisions during development is expected to preserve more trees but make development more challenging when trees are present," the report states.

Developers would also be required to hire an arborist from the city's list of designated arborists to complete tree-related reports associated with development applications, including tree disclosure statements and tree-preservation reports.

The new law also seeks to prevent situations in which someone removes a protected tree and then immediately tries to redevelop the property. A tree removal may now trigger a 36-month development moratorium, according to the ordinance, though the developer may propose mitigation measures to lift the moratorium early. A prior version of the proposed ordinance was more stringent on the topic of redevelopment and specified that the city "shall" impose such a moratorium.

Peter Gollinger, the city's urban forester, said the new law would also classify as protected any tree that is planted for carbon sequestration and storage purposes or to serve as a "replacement mitigation tree" as part of a condition for a development.

"So, if you're required to replace a removed protected tree with a new tree, those trees now become protected trees," Gollinger said at the April community meeting.

One key goal of the new ordinance, he said, is to better comply with new state laws pertaining to water conservation and wildfire prevention. Another goal is to bring the tree ordinance in alignment with Palo Alto's broad goals on sustainability and tree protection. Palo Alto's main land use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, calls for improving the overall distribution of citywide canopy cover, striving for getting 50% tree cover across the city, preserving trees and minimizing damage to trees due to construction-related activities.

Gollinger noted that the city's ordinance, which was initially passed in 1951, hasn't been updated since 2001.

"Our ordinance is old," he said. "It's been 21 years since we made any major changes to the ordinance."

Members of the city's Architectural Review Board and Parks and Recreation Commission all shared this sentiment. Peter Baltay, who serves on the architecture board, said that the city is overdue for a new ordinance.

"Palo Alto doesn't protect its trees properly," Baltay said at the board's April 21 review. "I've long felt that it's a shame that you can cut almost everything except a redwood and an oak with impunity, pretty much."

The Parks and Recreation Commission also strongly supported the effort, with commissioners Nellis Freeman and Jeff Greenfield both suggesting that the city treat the ordinance as a "living document" and revise it periodically.

"It may not be perfect from the outset, but it can be something that we can adopt and return to the commission to tweak as needed," Greenfield said at his commission's April 26 review. "Getting the changes adopted as soon as possible really is important for our trees.

Comments

felix
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 1, 2022 at 4:57 pm
felix, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 1, 2022 at 4:57 pm

Good. About time given it’s been 20 yrs since the last update and so much new is understood as to the critical role trees play for health, heat island cooling, energy savings and carbon capture.

Trees can still be removed when needed - but now it seems there will need to be for a good reason.


scott
Registered user
Fairmeadow
on Jun 1, 2022 at 5:11 pm
scott, Fairmeadow
Registered user
on Jun 1, 2022 at 5:11 pm

Wonder if the city is considering how this might interact with the housing element. On one hand they'll be arguing to housing regulators in Sacramento that ~600 lots are developable at certain densities. On the other, they'll be reducing the developable land on many of the lots after they were initially selected.

Might look kinda bad.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 2, 2022 at 9:32 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2022 at 9:32 am

Maybe the city did consider how it would impact the housing element. The number of realtors who tell people touring open houses how to kill the trees on the property so they can scrape and expand is disgustingly high.


olaf.brandt
Registered user
Midtown
on Jun 2, 2022 at 10:47 am
olaf.brandt, Midtown
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2022 at 10:47 am

Photo caption claims "bigleaf maple tree". I'm no botanist but I am pretty sure that is a liquid amber tree.


eileen
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 2, 2022 at 10:50 am
eileen , College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2022 at 10:50 am

Online Name, yes, that is precisely what the realtors selling the small cottage house across the street from me did. They advised the new owners, an investor, to cut down every tree on the property. There were two extremely large, beautiful canopy trees in the front and back that were cut down. There is no shade on that property and the street trees are also dying. I am glad our city realizes the importance of tree shade. We can still build higher and have more space around buildings for tall canopy trees to provide much-needed shade.


Alex
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 2, 2022 at 11:28 am
Alex, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2022 at 11:28 am

This ordinance is too broad. The 11.5 inch specification should only apply to California Native Tree and not to diseased or dying trees. If Palo Alto wants to protect large non-native species, the trunk size should be in the 3 foot range. Trees should not only provide shade but be an integral part of the ecosystem to be protected.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 2, 2022 at 11:40 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2022 at 11:40 am

Eileen, in my case I heard realtors repeatedly advising people on how to poison the trees and how long the various poisons would take for the trees to start hurting enough for the city to allow them to be cut down.

Since one of those trees is right next door to me, it stuck in my mind. Fortunately the new neighbors ignored that advice and we continue to enjoy the beautiful tree together.


Gennady Sheyner
Registered user
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Jun 2, 2022 at 2:34 pm
Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2022 at 2:34 pm

Thanks, Olaf. The tree in the caption is indeed a liquidambar. We corrected the error.


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 2, 2022 at 3:56 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2022 at 3:56 pm

Curious about who decides, and using what criteria, the threshold is for not “financially feasible” to retain an inconvenient tree. Especially mature street trees, so many of which city hall has allowed commercial developers to remove. Replacement trees, while required, are a sorry substitute for the loss of the public benefit of a mature canopy for the next 15-20 years, or longer.


Balance
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 2, 2022 at 4:08 pm
Balance, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2022 at 4:08 pm

Trees are awesome and I love how they add to the complexion of a neighborhood turning it from good to great. Trees do great things but this new proposed ordinance just smacks of government overreach.
If you love trees, the solution is to plant more trees in YOUR yard. If you don't have enough land, buy more land. If you can't afford it, then stop affecting other peoples plans (my land, my choice). I think we need a more nuanced approach; something like having 1 in the front yard or the backyard, or planting more trees on public sidewalks.


Banes
Registered user
Greater Miranda
on Jun 2, 2022 at 7:38 pm
Banes , Greater Miranda
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2022 at 7:38 pm

Agree. However, even when the trees are protected, new owners can come in and chop them down and unless somebody turns them in -and even then it’s just a slap on the wrist with minor fines.
I sold a house and first thing the new owners did was chop down every Redwood tree and the heritage Oak in the backyard on 4th July 2013, When nobody was paying attention or was in town. Neighbors called the city Arborist and there were only minor fines. Whereas if I had cut all those mature heritage trees down - the property would have sold for many hundreds of thousands of dollars more.
Now you look out around various neighborhoods in Palo Alto and it looks like there’s an ADU in every backyard, Reminded me of ghettos of India.
Do you really think any consequences will make any difference to property owners, who gain significant financial advantage for their tree ???? ???? less, BUILDABLE, ADU-available lot. ??
Talk is cheap, so are laws when they aren’t enforced.


Hal Plotkin
Registered user
Midtown
on Jun 4, 2022 at 9:37 am
Hal Plotkin, Midtown
Registered user
on Jun 4, 2022 at 9:37 am

Unfortunately, as we learned when an investor cut down several "protected" old growth trees on our block the "tree preservation ordinance" is virtually meaningless. It doesn't matter at all how many trees are on the list. What matters is how easy it is to avoid complying with the ordinance. It is a trivial matter to get a consultant to claim a tree's roots are damaging a nearby structure's foundation as occurred on our block. Once that happens the property owner gets permission to cut down the tree. When I inquired, the city was not able to identify a single tree that had been preserved after a property owned jumped thru the hoop of claiming damage to their foundation. Nor does the city provide any resources to identify ways that foundations can be protected without removing the tree. Our experience is that the loopholes in this ordinance render it entirely ineffective.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 4, 2022 at 11:40 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 4, 2022 at 11:40 am

Well, we know from the Casti hearings the city staff effectively said "a protected tree is protected except when it isn't." That's why the neighbors had to hire their own arborist to push back against city staff falling all over themselves to give Casti what they wanted.


felix
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2022 at 12:17 pm
felix, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 4, 2022 at 12:17 pm

Many of these commenters point out the need for strong enforcement. They are absolutely right!

The City must hire more Enforcement Officers generally to see our laws are followed, including those that pertain to trees.

We can have good laws but we must then enforce them. That is true here. Are you listening, City Council Members?


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 4, 2022 at 2:35 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 4, 2022 at 2:35 pm

The past and current city manager have seen fit to gut the code enforcement department. Unfortunately the council has not priotized a fully staffed and functioning code enforcement department either.

However, the city manager has stacked and packed his office with highly paid assistant managers, assistant to the assistant, etc etc. Not to mention this city managers newly created PR position to push out press releases, although this appears to be more about keeping the city manager’s image burnished as keeping residents informed.

Unfortunately Palo Alto’s city charter gives the city manager wide leeway in how the city is run with only a limited oversight roll for the city council.


jr1
Registered user
Greenmeadow
on Jun 6, 2022 at 5:04 pm
jr1, Greenmeadow
Registered user
on Jun 6, 2022 at 5:04 pm

Before neighbors begin to insert new trees, they should think of the ramification when the tree is over 20 years. If the proper tree is planted, when it grows the tree can be enjoyed by the current resident. In Greenmeadow, a neighbor planted several trees along the side of the house and in the backyard. The neighbor failed to note that trees grow and then they had a problem. In time most of the trees were removed. Residents need to think about the trees they are installing, and get a general idea how large and wide will the tree get. I was recently in Sacramento, they are inserting new evergreens so the clean up is less and the city appears greener year round. The city should publish a list to help residents make a determination as too the tree that they should plant. To often trees are put in, they grow and 25 plus years later they are being removed.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 7, 2022 at 4:33 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 7, 2022 at 4:33 pm

Last night's City Council agenda included a little exercise in irony. After determining the fate of the Castilleja expansion application which involves the removal of many mature trees, CC turned its attention to this tree protection ordinance. Timing is everything. Trees are important, good for the environment, and should be protected. Until a development project says otherwise.

Really now, when is that values statement coming out?


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 7, 2022 at 6:31 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 7, 2022 at 6:31 pm

Hah! It's no doubt much of the city's voluminous Sustainability Plan they said last night was coming soon -- right after that amusing discussion of whether taking out old trees mattered to the environment.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 13, 2022 at 2:27 pm
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 13, 2022 at 2:27 pm

Shade people by approving and building safe sustainable affordable homes . So much concrete is being poured for commercial and city building development and the parking structures/stalls that accompany these near empty buildings. Why are there empty spaces which lay fallow and for what purpose do these hot paved and paved spaces do, but heat up. One guaranteed parking space for every employee coming from outside or drive to work? Yet what once was, has changed with COVID. Now former “commuters” office workers, working from home while our economic structure wobbles under the weight of a looming recession! Every hour the Northern California, Silly Valley economic divide gets deeper and steeper. Truth. Trees grow old and die. While our democracy is falling sickly, city ordinances like these only “appear” to get things done. And also bolster the few in power against the many who have very near nothing. How about this. For every parking space “needed” for no-one , that commercial development plants one tree here in PA or elsewhere near, like tree deprecated East Palo Alto? Layers and layers and layers of Concrete wet, dry, demolished or transported sucks tons and tons of clean oxygen from a breathable, living space — inside and out. Manufactured chemical based Concrete never dies, it’s poison just gets shifted behind “tree speak”. It’s also a petroleum based toxic product that is surely rising in price along with petrel fuel and falling on the leaves and roots of life itself.


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