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April 07, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Council backs off change to tree law Council backs off change to tree law (April 07, 2004)

By Rebecca Wallace
Almanac Staff Writer

His views were strong, but his legs weren't long enough. So his dad lifted him up to the microphone in the Menlo Park City Council chambers.

"I don't want the trees to be cut because it's the animals' houses and it makes air for the people," young Avery Cowan told the council March 30.

He drew the loudest applause of the night. All in all, it wasn't a bad civics lesson -- especially since the little boy got his way.

After many residents spoke out in e-mails and during the meeting against a proposed change to the city ordinance protecting heritage trees, the council decided not to approve the amendment.

Permits are required to cut down larger trees known as heritage trees, but the change would have exempted trees growing in the "buildable" area of residential lots, allowing property owners to remove them without a permit and without notifying neighbors.

Councilwoman Mickie Winkler had championed the change, saying the permit process is "wasteful" in light of the fact that all eight applications in 2003 to remove trees for construction purposes (not because the trees were diseased or dead) were granted.

Ultimately, though, she changed her mind.

"The community certainly spoke up on behalf of keeping the ordinance," she said after the meeting. "And the staff was telling us that no cost reductions to the city would be achieved by that particular change."

The five-member council unanimously voted against the change; it instead approved less contentious amendments.

The current law defines a heritage tree as one at least 15 inches in diameter 48 inches from its base, with the exception of native oaks and redwood trees, which qualify at 10 inches in diameter. One of the approved changes removes that exception for redwoods. Another moves the measurement spot to 54 inches above the base, which city staff said is common practice.

The changes were approved as part of a first reading of the amended law. The council is expected to give final approval to the law on April 6.

Ms. Winkler said after the meeting that she has no intention of further pursuing the controversial exemption, especially since administrative changes made in September had streamlined the process.

She is interested, though, in possibly denying heritage status to some trees because they are fire hazards or "nuisance" trees, such as acacias, which can aggravate allergies. The city's Environmental Quality Commission will study the matter, she said.

Ms. Winkler also said a suggestion made by resident Lou Deziel at the meeting was worthy of further study.

Mr. Deziel said the city should give residents incentives to keep heritage trees rather than cutting them down for construction. While current law allows residents to avoid removing a tree by moving projects slightly into the "setback" (the perimeter of a lot that cannot be built on), he said larger encroachments into the setback could be allowed.

Several other speakers said they opposed the proposed exemption of trees in the buildable area, especially since neighbors would not have been notified of planned tree removals or been able to appeal to the city to prevent them. Trees benefit all residents and make the city more attractive, they said.

"I ask that you stop the attacks on the livability of our city," said David Speer, a resident and 2002 council candidate.

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