Whose tree is it, anyhow?

Should neighbors have a say in cutting down trees?

Before a new house goes up or an old one comes down in Peninsula cities and towns, it is common practice to invite comment from neighbors. Should the same be done in Woodside for the destruction of a large tree, particularly a tree that screens a neighbor's property?

The topic of neighbor involvement versus property rights was one of several that came up during a third discussion by the Town Council on directions for staff in revising the language of the law regulating the felling of "significant" native trees, defined as measuring 9.5 inches in diameter at 48 inches above ground.

The council also touched on penalties for cutting a tree without a permit, an issue not yet resolved. Woodside's current penalties go as high as $10,000 per tree, a figure that a survey shows is much higher than in comparable communities.

The council also considered how to clarify the law with respect to transplanting a significant tree. The council leaned toward forgoing a permit within property lines, but requiring one if the tree goes off site.

A loophole allowed a resident some years ago to move several full grown heritage trees to Atherton. Advances in methods for doing this are lowering what were serious risks of the tree dying, Councilwoman Anne Kasten said.

"We have some very valuable trees in our town that other people would pay a lot of money for," she said.

One check on residents' plans, council members noted, is the town's Architecture and Site Review Board, which oversees major residential projects.

"I think we should be involved and have some oversight in moving a significant tree," Councilman Dave Burow said. "Some people are going to do it right, some are not."

"Who's the arborist advising you?" Mr. Burow asked, imagining a question from staff to a resident with plans to remove a heritage tree. Continuing the dialog, Mr. Burow implied that some residents, while not saying it out loud, could think, "I don't need no stinking arborist."

Impact on neighbors

During a March 8 council discussion, a resident of West Maple Way complained about a neighbor who, reportedly without a permit, felled a strip of significant trees near the neighbor's driveway.

"How do you value my property now that my privacy is gone," the resident asked the council, noting that it would be 30 to 40 years before her screening vegetation returns. "I'm furious at this person's attack."

A possible catch: the trees were eucalyptus and Monterey cypress, both invasive and ill-favored species along with Monterey pine and acacia. For these species, the standard is more harsh; they aren't considered significant until they reach 36 inches across.

Word has gotten around that, because these species are vulnerable to felling for a longer time, they are considered "fair game," Town Manager Susan George wrote in a staff report. The current ordinance, which lumps them under the "other" category, should be revised to name their species and note that a permit may be necessary, the report said.

But the Woodside Fire Protection District lists these trees as fire-prone and dangerous. "We want to get as many of those out as possible," Mr. Burow said. "They're not good trees. They're just fuel."

They also provide screening, Ms. Kasten said.

"It seems crazy that a neighbor would force (another) neighbor to keep a high-fire-danger tree," Mr. Burow said. "It seems totally wrong."

Neighbors ought to have an opportunity to comment, and staff an opportunity to take those comments into consideration, Mayor Ron Romines said.

"I'm curious," Ms. Kasten asked of Mr. Burow, "would you have all the eucalyptus and Monterey pine and acacias in town removed?"

Too expensive, Mr. Burow replied. He said he knows of people who cull one eucalyptus a year, but at a cost of hundreds of dollars. "The economics suggest that they'll be here way longer than you and I."

Neighbors ought to provide their own screening, resident Diane Elder said during the public comment period, adding that she is uncomfortable with protecting "trees we are trying to get rid of."

You don't want to empower a neighbor to stop a resident's plans cold, Mr. Burow said.

"The goal is to get people to talk with one another," Ms. Kasten noted. Maybe the town should reconsider the matter of a tree's fate being left up to one person, she said.

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