After mighty oak comes crashing down, resident calls for change to tree protection ordinance | March 24, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 24, 2023

After mighty oak comes crashing down, resident calls for change to tree protection ordinance

Anneke Dempsey says Palo Alto must take more steps to prevent trees and branches from falling and causing damage

by Sue Dremann

Anneke Dempsey was concerned about the giant oak in her backyard for years. The weight of its massive limbs could potentially cause the tree or branches to fall onto her or her neighbor's home, she told a city of Palo Alto's Public Works Department arborist.

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Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 24, 2023 at 8:39 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Palo Alto utilities have been wonderful in clean up in all the storms this winter.

But preventative maintenance is pretty poor. Each year the utilities come and trim trees on or near our property away from powerlines, and leave misshapen trees that have become very odd in shape over decades. The way they are trimmed does nothing for the strength and vitality of the tree itself, just takes branches away from the powerlines. What happens when one of those trees comes down is anybody's guess, but trees that are trimmed badly will be lopsided, top heavy and more likely to come down in a wind storm than one that has been allowed to grow evenly.

Another aspect of our utilities short thinking. If our powerlines were underground they would not have the expense of trimming our trees into odd shapes which would make them more likely to topple in a storm.

Posted by Jennifer
a resident of another community
on Mar 24, 2023 at 10:23 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

If the city told me I was forbidden from removing large limbs I'd remove them anyway. The heck with the heritage tree ordinance. Safety first. Removal of trees is very expensive, but it's worth it. Trees cause damage including death. Getting the city to pay for it would be nice but it's a pipe dream. Not everyone can afford tree removal. I hope PA does help the Dempsey's. Be thankful the tree didn't hit your husband or your dog.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 24, 2023 at 10:33 am

Online Name is a registered user.

If you remember the infamous quote from the Casti hearings, the city "planners" defended their double standard saying "A tree is considered protected except when it's not."

Perhaps the CPAU spokesperson could address -- start addressing -- the issue of upgrading the grid and undergrounding wiring so thousands of us don't have to keep sitting here in the dark when outages have increased 64% in the last 10 years. And for this we get huge rate hikes.

Posted by Mwata
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 24, 2023 at 10:42 am

Mwata is a registered user.

You cannot find a tree removal company that will remove a heritage tree without the permit from the city. Obtaining a permit is impossible, even if you were the one who planted the tree on your property before the ordinance was passed. I only recently found out that I was in this situation when I wanted to have the tree removed after the January storm.
With the high winds and volume of rain, this is a ticking time bomb for many residents in Palo Alto.
The ordinance needs to change.

Posted by Tom DuBois
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 24, 2023 at 10:42 am

Tom DuBois is a registered user.

Sue, you said " the 40-year-old, giant tree" - was that 400 years?

Posted by Bernie Brightman
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 24, 2023 at 10:50 am

Bernie Brightman is a registered user.

If a tree is on both private and public property, why cannot the homeowner and the city share the cost of trimming? Is it so difficult to share anymore?

Posted by Jerry
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 24, 2023 at 11:20 am

Jerry is a registered user.

We had a similar situation where a city-planted tree fell on a neighbor's house about a year ago. It feel on a room where two young girls were sleeping. Fortunately they were unharmed but it could have ended differently.

The neighbor said that the city refused any compensation for it. They had to fight with the insurance company to get some settlement. But they ended up paying $20,000 of their own money to repair the damage.

The city never maintained the tree even though it was obviously dying, citing the fact that it was on a adjacent neighbor's property. It's just a matter of time before somebody dies due the city negligence over this.

Posted by Aletheia
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 24, 2023 at 11:20 am

Aletheia is a registered user.

The trampling of property rights by this city is breathtaking. Go get 'em Dempsey's!

Posted by Darrell
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 24, 2023 at 11:30 am

Darrell is a registered user.

Anneke Dempsey, I'm in full agreement and am available to help with this cause if you'll lead it.

Posted by Palo Alto Res
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 24, 2023 at 11:36 am

Palo Alto Res is a registered user.

We can thank Bryna Chang for adding more trees to the protected list for Palo Alto.
Reality is, the protected tree list is one more way the city prevents ADUs and building of more homes. NIMBYIsm hidden as tree protection

Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 24, 2023 at 11:39 am

felix is a registered user.

While some trees did fall - for that I am sorry truly sorry for those it happened to - 99.99.99% of trees did not fall. Do let’s all keep some perspective.

If you are concerned about the health of a tree on your property, hire a good CERTIFIED arborist to look at it and give you a report on health. Often there are things you can do to help the tree. If it presents a hazard, of course it may be removed.

Often just going in and removing limbs is the worst thing you can do - making a sound tree unsound.

Native trees, after a few years, don’t need pruning but to cut dead or crossed branches. Have a licensed tree service prune when necessary. Oaks do not need to be “cleaned out or thinned”.

And water trees during droughts! The City encourages this. This hugely helps to keep trees healthy. Certainly many that fell were drought weakened. Oak trees have special water needs - go to Canopy’s website for tree care and watering info.

Our tree ordinance protects trees for vital climate, health, and recreation needs for our City and residents while allowing removal when needed. We cannot “throw the baby out with the bath”. The answer is for all of us to get better educated about how to maintain all trees.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 24, 2023 at 1:09 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

We had a dying tree on our property and asked a tree company to remove it. Their specialist said it could be saved and suggested we water it much more than we had been doing and he would come back in a year to do another inspection. By the time of his return even with our heavy watering, the tree was obviously dead and he agreed to remove it. Fortunately, the work was done very quickly after that, but that year was worrying.

Specialists do not have to live under a dying tree. They are not interested in what may happen, just on the life of the tree. It is a problem.

Posted by Novelera
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 24, 2023 at 1:16 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

Felix, Amen. It bugs me that, whenever some issue comes up that may involve city staff, the "throw out all government and rules" crowd jumps in with negative comments. I loved your comment. I bought my house in Palo Alto partially because it reminded me of the way houses looked in Ohio; i.e. trees everywhere. Where I lived before in Sunnyvale, there were NOT tree lined streets.

Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 24, 2023 at 3:04 pm

PA Resident is a registered user.

"City Utilities spokesperson Catherine Elvert, however, said the city doesn't trim or maintain trees on private property. Trimming and maintenance of trees on private properties are the homeowner or tenant's responsibility"

With the latest tree ordinance passed last year, Palo Alto now has purview over private trees that are of a certain size and not limited to Heritage trees. You now need permission to even trim these trees which can also be overruled by the city as it was in this case. And it is now more costly since the tree companies have to do more work to obtain permits etc. Another way to fleece residents and make more money.

Palo Alto does a terrible job of maintaining their own trees - Not so long ago, they cut down trees on California avenue all in the name of development. But to make up for it, they create these rules to restrict homeowners and residents to manage their own trees in their backyard. The hypocrisy is appalling.

They need to rethink the tree ordinance. Menlo Park residents are also fighting back - and I hope the cities will choose tax payers/people and safety over trees.

Posted by scott
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 24, 2023 at 6:41 pm

scott is a registered user.

There's an 18-month development moratorium in the tree ordinance for violations. So the nightmare scenario is if the city finds you in violation, and then a tree blows over and falls on your house. Can't rebuild until that moratorium lapses.

It doesn't have to be the same tree.

When the 18 months are up, you'll need an arborist report for the project. Your report needs to consider impacts on all trees within a certain radius, irrespective of the property lines. So your arborist knocks on your neighbor's door and kindly says "we need to check out this tree in your backyard to complete the application for your neighbor to rebuild their house."

Unfortunately, we're talking about *that* neighbor. You know the one. You know the history.

The neighbor just smiles, and says: "no."

Posted by Crescent Park Mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 24, 2023 at 7:03 pm

Crescent Park Mom is a registered user.

Heritage and protected trees should be identified and information provided about their significance (age, etc) so people can enjoy them and understand their significance. There is a place for them and its not on a homeowner's property. These trees keep homeowners from doing what they want with their measly 6500 square feet. They are also incredibly expensive for a homeowner to maintain. Lastly, they keep homeowners from getting approval for adding ADUs which we need to meet the California State mandate. For anything zoned as residential, owners should be able to remove or modify trees on their property at their discretion. New trees, that are more suited to the neighborhood, can be planted to replace them. They will grow. That's the beauty of a tree!!! As cool as heritage and protected trees are, they are going to eventually die. Homeowners shouldn't be held hostage until that eventual date. We need to modify the rules around heritage and protected trees in Palo Alto!!

Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 24, 2023 at 7:35 pm

MP Resident is a registered user.

I say that residents should have complete say in whether they want a tree to come down. The vast majority of trees that you see now in Palo Alto and Menlo Park are human planted in the past 100 years. If you look at any old photos of this area, you will be shocked at how treeless the landscape was around the turn of the century. By mandating tree planting and preservation of "heritage" (which is by size, not age as most are less than 100 years old) we have artificially altered the local landscape. Maybe it was a charming idea when water and resources were plentiful, but maintaining these non-native trees is now an expensive proposition. It will become an increasingly dangerous proposition as we go through these cycles of drought/excessive rain leading to more tree falling.

The trees are now becoming a major liability, we need to take them down without a City Hall that is insensitive to the homeowner's needs and pocketbook.

Posted by Resident since 1997
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 24, 2023 at 10:07 pm

Resident since 1997 is a registered user.

if the city has the authority to forbid the trimming or removal of trees threatening residents' safety, then the city should be liable for the incidents happened afterwards.

Posted by M
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 25, 2023 at 6:44 am

M is a registered user.

Trees are extremely important to the comfort and aesthetics of our community, particularly as the climate warms. Cities with a good canopy are much cooler and as the climate warms we need them more than ever. But, they are under extreme stress, from dense development and lack of care and maintenance.

Palo Alto is named after a tree, and we are lucky to have as many as we do. Burt, we take them for granted, treating them as self-sustaining even as we build and pave around them. They need to be maintained, which means watering, soil maintenance and trimming. From an environmental and climate perspective, it is better to let the lawn go brown and keep the trees green and healthy.

We have had a historic drought, followed by historic wind. It is not surprising that trees have fallen and branches have broken. I sincerely hope the lesson the city takes from this is that we need to focus on ensuring our trees are kept healthy (watering, canopy maintenance, etc.) so they can withstand the changing climate, and not simply giving up and going for the chain saw.

Posted by Downtown resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 25, 2023 at 8:13 am

Downtown resident is a registered user.

As our climate gets more extreme, expect more spells of drought and extreme rain. This will result in more trees falling over time. I do not recall the city ever encouraging watering of trees during the drought - and that won’t make sense if water supplies are low. It seems fair that if the city wants to preserve large trees, they should be held responsible for the cost of trimming, maintaining, as well as damage and death from the trees. The trees are not old (look at old photos), but imho, they are huge and entirely inappropriate for an urban environment. Damage and death from falling trees will become more common in the next decades - and those who advocate for these giant trees should bear that in mind. It is unclear to me why the city has any say over what I do with trees on my own property.

Posted by Environmentalist
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 26, 2023 at 11:27 am

Environmentalist is a registered user.

[Portion removed.] There are accidents on 101 every single day, maybe we should stop driving! [Portion removed]

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 26, 2023 at 11:52 am

Anonymous is a registered user.

This is very important for people’s lives and property!!
I agree with Anneke Dempsey.
Please, Palo Alto City Council, update the tree ordinance for common sense and public safety.

Posted by anon1234
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 27, 2023 at 8:12 am

anon1234 is a registered user.

Palo Alto Res, Downtown North
Registered user
on Mar 24, 2023 at 11:36 am
“We can thank Bryna Chang for adding more trees to the protected list for Palo Alto.”
Not sure why this person is calling out planning commissioner Bryna Chang for. the expanded protected tree list as she was NOT in any way connected to the rewrite of the Tree Ordinance.
Just correcting the record!

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 27, 2023 at 9:26 am

Mondoman is a registered user.

@Downtown resident
I remember during the recent 2-days-a-week watering restrictions, trees were specifically exempted.

Posted by Sue Dremann
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Mar 27, 2023 at 3:15 pm

Sue Dremann is a registered user.

Hi Tom,

The homeowner has confirmed that the tree is 40-50 years old in her estimation.


Posted by Andy
a resident of University South
on Mar 27, 2023 at 5:04 pm

Andy is a registered user.

Many assume big trees are really old -- this isn't necessarily the case. My father had to remove an enormous redwood in MV that was over 8' in diameter - tree was "only" 64 years old.

We should direct the city arborist to apply more discretion -- it is a slippery slope, but one they could navigate and then approve more trimming of protected trees. Another idea is the city helping to pay for measures, like wires between limbs, that help keep beautiful trees around longer.

What about the city helping to pay owners to plant 'heritage' trees in their property? Yes, that new oak may not provide privacy for another 15 years, but it will be there for the next generation to enjoy and is less than the pittosporum.

And, finally, from what I've read, unless one can prove negligence, a tree in your yard falling on a neighbor's property is an 'act of god' and it is on the neighbor's insurance to pay for repairs. But, in California, you may be liable to remove the downed tree or limbs from your neighbor's property on request. Please correct me if you know better and this information is not correct.

Posted by long time local resident
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 29, 2023 at 10:53 am

long time local resident is a registered user.

The city needs to be more thoughtful in its application of tree protection. Yes we want a vibrant canopy, but not an out-of-place one. We also want to invest in our urban canopy for the long term. When we built our home ~20 years ago, we requested removal of a street tree that was in front of our home. It was within 5 years of the end of its expected life and was also very close to the tree next to it. It provided barely any canopy as a result of poor pruning and dying limbs and what it did was under the canopy of the other tree. We were going to have to replace the sidewalk (which had a tree cutout in that spot) and wanted to pay to plant a new tree spaced more equally between the two on either side. We had arborist reports but our request was denied - twice once at the beginning of our project and again when we made the request right before the end of construction. 6 or 7 years later, the city had to remove the tree and plant another one. The scrawny little tree is not growing well because it doesn't get enough light because it's placed too close to the tree next to it. What a wasted opportunity to improve our urban canopy for the long term at no cost to the city.

Posted by Liquidamber
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 29, 2023 at 3:57 pm

Liquidamber is a registered user.

A neighbors 5+ story elm come down on my house. The tree had long been declining being planted in a shady corner by a tall fence squashed between a detached garage/ADU. I'd helped pay for trimming dead branches after another contiguous neighbor stopped watering their back lawn which clearly caused the tree big stress. The tree fell one day after a big wind storm. Its roots had all rotted on the shady/damp corner where it was planted. Fell onto a bed where someone had been sleeping recently.

I was covered by the neighbor's insurance only for tree debris removal cost. My insurance carrier covered my building repair. Had to absorb my deductible. Bottom line: unless there is a WRITTEN professional arborist report prepared BEFORE the tree comes down AND there is a legal record of that report being sent to the offending property owner BEFORE the tree comes down you, dear innocent neighbors are out of luck.That is the harsh caveat emptor reality of what insurance carriers do between themselves to save themselves work.

Now, I make sure any trees which could harm my property get an arborist's report and if bad, it will be mailed with all legal methods such as return receipt certified mail. If more of us do that for all the City's trees, City Hall will wake up.

We know it already repairs sidewalks only when hit with compensation demands for personal injury since it is cheaper for them to roll the liability dice for injuries than do sidewalk repairs in a more timely manner. Ditto the sewer lateral repairs in a responsible manner. I watched for over 50 years the City putting poison down its sewer laterals for root messes directly killing 5 beautiful street trees on my homes' blocks. The City Hall bean counters wait for trees to die and each lateral to fail completely before they ever dig up a street to repair all laterals which blow such a the terra cotta sectional laterals in north Palo Alto. Prevent and reduce costs of disasters with a lick of sense.

Posted by Liquidamber
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 29, 2023 at 4:22 pm

Liquidamber is a registered user.

I felt like a complete idiot when my insurance carrier told me that without a prior WRITTEN arborist report noting a dangerous tree and with some written PROOF before the tree fell I'd gotten it to the neighbor with a potentially dangerous tree such as an emailed acknowledgment, USA homeowner insurance carriers immediately label a tree falling an Act of God.

l've also learned over the years that if there is any sewer blockage or slow flow of any kind to call the City Utility Department to scope their side of the lateral at the same time I call a plumbing company to see if "my" side of the lateral is blocked. It's all, one sewer employee told me, about piling up the costs and paperwork at City Hall to force them to pay attention to their primary reason to exist: health & safety.

Never forget who the vast majority of City Hall employees actually work for: themselves not us residents especially in the budget and planning offices. As we look forward to another incoming rain storm in this La Nina winter, let's all fondly recall the City Manager who in the 1998 flood ordered a City work crew to divert from public property sandbagging and San Francisquito Creek debris removal to sandbag her own home.

Posted by Li
a resident of Duveneck School
on Mar 29, 2023 at 11:09 pm

Li is a registered user.

The falling branches about 3-4” diameters from the city tree in front of our house had almost killed me, my kid and an electrical worker. They fell down right in front of us in different times in a sunny peaceful day. I reported to the city tree department each incident, but not action or effective action has been taken. During the storms this winter, a lot of big branches were on our street from the city trees. I think they are tulips trees, very old, and tall. They have sticky saps dripping down in the spring. I heard nearby cities have removed this type of tree, but Palo Alto tree department told me they would never remove them. The city tree service came to trim the tree, but the big branches still kept falling. They are dangerous. I am not sure what I could do about it.

Posted by Bob Sanner
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 30, 2023 at 6:41 pm

Bob Sanner is a registered user.

Unfortunately , about 100 % of the tree defenders here have never contended with tree risks, tree damage, dealing with the City of PA, expenses, lawsuits, multiple arborists, etc. I have. I suggest (1) they should walk in my shoes. (2) send me a check for my expenses, since they love dangerous trees so much. Loving trees is great in the abstract, not so so great in the concrete when you are the one directly and financially affected. Frankly, some of these posts are absurd and completely uninformed. There is indeed a City ordinance allowing removal of protected trees. Did you know there’s a state law ? When there’s a conflict between the 2, guess which wins ? Actually I know the answer explicitly. I went before a State Superior Judge in Fall 2021. My attorney argued state law. The attorney of my opponent, my neighbor, argued he was obeying the PA ordinance. Guess who won? ( DUH)

Posted by anon1234
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 31, 2023 at 7:29 am

anon1234 is a registered user.

Native protected tree species are not the same as Heritage trees.
Our tree ordinance among other things is intended to protect some native species , promote health of trees and allow for all trees that might be dangerous to be removed !
Heritage tree is a specific term and as you can see from our tree ordinance quoted below, a designation ifs heritage tree requires consent from property owners.

8.10.090 Designation of heritage trees.
(a) Upon nomination by any person and with the written consent of the property owner(s), the city council may designate a tree or trees as a heritage tree.
(b) A tree may be designated as a heritage tree upon a finding that it is of importance to the community due to any of the following factors:
(1) It is an outstanding specimen of a desirable species.
(2) It is one of the largest or oldest trees in Palo Alto.
(3) It possesses distinctive form, size, age, location, and/or historical significance.
(c) After council approval of a heritage tree designation, the city clerk shall notify the property owner(s) in writing. A listing of trees so designated, including the specific locations thereof, shall be kept by the departments of public works.
(d) Once designated, a heritage tree shall be considered protected and subject to the provisions of this chapter unless removed from the list of heritage trees by action of the city council. The city council may remove a tree from the list upon its own motion or upon written request by the property owner. Request for such action must originate in the same manner as nomination for heritage tree designation.

Posted by Bob Sanner
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 31, 2023 at 7:42 am

Bob Sanner is a registered user.

Anon1234 is misleading. Yes, protected trees are different from heritage trees in PA. However the rules are the same for both. As I wrote before:been there, done that. To reiterate, a lot of these posts are totally . misinformed.

Posted by anon1234
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 31, 2023 at 7:50 am

anon1234 is a registered user.

Here is a list of the (8) heritage trees in Palo Alto from the city website:

El Palo Alto Sequoia Sempervirens El Palo Alto Park 1

Rinconada Oak Quercus Agrifolia Rinconada Park 2

Coast Redwood Sequoia Sempervirens 3759 La Donna Avenue 3

Dawn Redwood Metasequoia Glyptostoboides 1032 Forest Avenue 4

Coast Redwood Sequoia Sempervirens 1019 Forest Court 5

American Elm Ulmus Americana 4226 Ponce Drive 6

Aleppo Pine Pinus Halepensis 2291 Ramona Street 7

Aleppo Pine Pinus Halepensis 1231 Parkinson Avenue 8

Posted by Bob Sanner
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 31, 2023 at 12:10 pm

Bob Sanner is a registered user.

Heritage trees are essentially irrelevant to the readers here. There are only 8. If you own one, you know it. It’s the hundreds or thousands of privately owned protected trees which are relevant. There is “no list”. You may own several and not know it. You want want take one down because it’s dangerous ? Here come the PA arborist Dept to let you know if you can.

Posted by Bob Sanner
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 31, 2023 at 1:02 pm

Bob Sanner is a registered user.

PLEASE read CA Civil Code #3479. State Law. There is only one law in CA which protects private property , and this is it. It’s the “foundational law” of private property. PA ordinance contradicts it. Guess who wins in this conflict ? PA would NOT ( I believe) try to defend its ordinance in court, it’s called a “clear waste of taxpayer money”. It’s for the purpose of being non-transparent to the citizens. Citizens read the City ordinance and believe they have very limited rights. Nope. Their rights are defined by state law.

Posted by anon1234
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 31, 2023 at 3:06 pm

anon1234 is a registered user.

All Dangerous trees can be receding under the city’s tree ordinance even protected trees

Posted by anon1234
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 31, 2023 at 3:07 pm

anon1234 is a registered user.

All dangerous trees can be removed under the tree ordinance

Posted by Bob Sanner
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 31, 2023 at 6:52 pm

Bob Sanner is a registered user.

No need to keep debating this. I have lived through it in PA. I have met personally with the City arborist . He told me , face-to-face, there’s a bias against removing protected trees. There’s a certain tree-lover organization which doesn’t want tall beautiful trees removed. The “ tree risk” writing says “high risk under normal weather conditions”. Yea, right, good luck with that. Line up an attorney now.

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