On March 14, the Dempseys' concern was realized with near-fatal consequences. Ray Dempsey had been working in their backyard, and the couple's beloved Labrador, Daisy Mae, was accompanying him. Minutes after they left the yard, the 40-year-old, giant tree came crashing down.
Old trees in her neighborhood also met a similar fate. She estimated that four to six trees fell in the recent storms, including one that struck a neighbor's car.
Now Dempsey wants changes to the city's inflexible tree protection ordinance, which, she said, doesn't take into consideration that many of the large trees are located on small, residential lots where homes are endangered. She also wants to see increased funding for preventative tree work within the city's utilities and public works departments so that protected trees can better weather future storms.
"It was a miracle that the tree did not hit our home or my husband and dog ... but it did hit our neighbor's back wall and roof," she said.
Dempsey said the couple has always taken care of trimming the large tree, costing them about $3,000 every other year. The city has never shared any of the costs, even though city staff felt the city had the ultimate say over the tree.
"I am very angry with the city for ignoring and denying our request to make this tree less large. They completely ignored us and our concerns," she said on Wednesday.
"I believe we have a valid problem with having too many huge trees, especially oak trees, on home lots that are rather small. No matter where our oak would have landed, it would have hit a home with 100% certainty," she said.
"Also, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. However, prevention does not receive the recognition it deserves, while the cure gets all the kudos and the spending money," she said.
Three years ago, the oak's branches were entangled with electrical wires, which were "very slack," Dempsey said.
The city didn't trim the branches. High winds caused the branches to damage the electrical line, and several wires caught fire. The Dempseys lost $4,000 in electronic equipment within their home as a result, and the neighbors lost their electric stove.
"The utilities department said it was not their problem," she recalled.
Dempsey doesn't fault the utilities field crews, which she gives "five stars." But she wants the utilities management to be transparent, strategic, preventative and planning.
"I do not want them to be reactive to a crisis in general. That effort becomes tactical, which is what the field teams are responsible for," she said.
City Utilities spokeswoman 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.
"This is the case for the service line on a private property running to the customer's premise from our primary and secondary utility lines.
"We trim and maintain the vegetation in public areas around our utility's primary or secondary lines and poles. These primary and secondary lines typically run along easements ??" often near backyards ??" in the public right of way. If a tree on private property were to hang over or begin interfering with our utility's primary or secondary lines or other electrical equipment, then the utility will address it, particularly for safety reasons. We do not want anyone interfering with our infrastructure," she said.
The department has increased its tree trimming and maintenance on public property in response to recent storms, often in advance of anticipated storms, and plans to continue work to prevent trees from coming in contact or interfering with utility lines, Elvert said.
Dempsey is also calling for the city's Urban Forestry staff or arborist to check on the city's protected trees, which she said she hasn't seen happen. The cost to homeowners is too burdensome, she said.
The Dempseys have already paid a tree-removal company $10,000 for the fallen oak's removal. Taking out the stump and repairing the demolished fence, lighting and watering system ??" and damage to the neighbor's house ??" could increase the price tag to $20,000 to $25,000, she estimated. She has written to the City Council asking the city to share the costs.
The City Manager's office did not respond by press time to a request for comment regarding the Dempseys' situation, any possible changes to the protected tree ordinance or increased preventative funding.
"Update: According to a response from the city of Palo Alto after this article was initially published, the city has no record of the Dempseys' request to remove limbs."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred to the city's Heritage Tree Ordinance and heritage trees. The ordinance in this case is the Tree Protection Ordinance and the redwoods are protected.
This story contains 897 words.
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