Arborist questions fears of pipeline damage

Oak tree roots pose no threat, report says

An arborist disputes the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's assertion that the roots of a centuries-old oak tree in North Fair Oaks threaten the utility's water pipelines.

"There is no reason that the pipeline can't be installed, leaving the tree intact and without killing the tree," wrote Barrie Coate, an arborist for the city of Saratoga, in a report commissioned by the owner of the property the tree overlooks.

His report called the commission's concern "simply not logical," as roots tend to stretch toward the soil's surface for oxygen and water, rather than down to the depth of the pipeline.

"I can certainly say that considering the many pipelines including those carrying high octane airplane fuel as well as water and sewage that exist in the ground in California and the many trees including species with far more aggressive roots than a valley oak that the likelihood of damage to this pipeline are so small as to be irrelevant," Mr. Coates concluded in his May 25 report.

The SFPUC sent a contractor last week to start excavating soil around the two pipelines already installed next to the tree to see whether the roots pose a threat. In a May 17 email obtained through a public records request, Hetch Hetchy operations manager Kent Nelson told the commission's spokeswoman that condensation on the outside of pipes attracts roots, which then corrode the surface as they wrap around, leading to "premature (potentially catastrophic) pipeline failure." Therefore, the commission recommended removing the tree.

The 65-foot oak, dubbed "Granny," dodged the ax in May when a coalition of neighbors protested the SFPUC's short-notice announcement that it planned to get rid of the tree. Granny sits in the middle of a site at 827 15th Ave. in North Fair Oaks that's designated for a pipeline meant to carry water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir as part of a $4.6 billion SFPUC seismic improvement project.

Mary Ann Mullen said 95 percent of households contacted in the area signed a petition to save the tree. The challenge, she said, may be maintaining public interest over time. According to Ms. Mullen, residents received a letter from the commission last week suggesting the pipeline installation might be delayed until fall.

"If this is an attempt to delay movement on this issue until things die down, the coalition will be here in six months as clearly focused as now," she said.

Relations between the SFPUC and Granny's neighbors remain strained. As two of the tree's advocates attempted to view the exploratory trench on June 6, commission arborist Matt Horowitz reportedly blocked access, first saying they must wear hard hats, then requiring them to contact the company that owns the job site when they returned 45 minutes later, hard hats in hand.

Ms. Mullen said that makes it impossible for their own consulting arborist to reach an independent conclusion about the test results, particularly if the trench gets filled in.

SFPUC spokeswoman Maureen Barry said she was looking into the situation and thought it may be a matter of allowing only authorized personnel onto construction sites, but that it may be possible to schedule visits.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Glen
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 7, 2011 at 12:33 pm

This is good news. Just have Barrie Coate personally guarantee and personally pay for damages when it fails. He seems to be overstepping his boundries for the City of Saratoga, isn't he? These delays are costly. Plan 5-10 new trees and get on with it.

Like this comment
Posted by Sheila Starr
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jun 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Barrie Coate is an arborist of world renown. He is certainly not "over-stepping" in his report! He has consulted with cities, counties and national organizations, corporations, museums, and so forth in his long career. I have personally engaged his services in creating a plan to rescue and preserve 40 second growth redwoods on private land.

Like this comment
Posted by MaryAnnM
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jun 13, 2011 at 9:55 am

As an attendee of the meeting between the SFPUC and the neighborhood coalition where these issues were discussed, I would like to share some facts related to what took place.

1) The costs for each option being considered are approximately the same. This is from Joe Ortiz, the Project Manager for the pipeline project.

2) The discussion surrounding the fate of this tree is NOT delaying this water project. Water for this system cannot flow until at least September of 2012 because of a 4M tunnel being installed in another section of the pipeline. Again, from the PUC's project manager.

As for the COSTS of each option related to this tree, here is how they need be compared in order to be truly accurate:

1) tunneling under the tree and inserting the pipe
2) moving the tree to another location and trenching and laying the pipe
3) cutting the tree down and trenching and laying the pipe

Specifically on the cost the PUC mentioned on Thursday ($260,000), the tunneling option included everything. The "removal" option only included cutting the tree down and taking away the wood - it did NOT include the trenching and pipe laying that completes the picture. Nor did it include the value of the tree, which was objectively established at $56,000 back in 2008. So $40,000 (as reflected in a recent article) would not be anywhere near the actual cost of the removal option.

Within two weeks a complete (and corrected) version of the costs associated with each option will be made available; the PUC is getting estimates for various pieces that will fill in the puzzle. Until then, no decision will be made. Part of that decision will include professional recommendations from several arborists, one of whom is the highly respected Mr. Coate. The other is Mr. Levison, with whom Mr. Coate has worked previously (and who wrote an initial report for the SFPUC also recommending preservation by tunneling).

We remain confident that the facts will show the way to whatever decision makes the most sense.

Like this comment
Posted by InterestedCitizen
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 13, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Barry Coate is a reknowned arborist with a stellar reputation in assessing trees/plants suitability for their environment. I have used his services and am very impressed with his credentials
ls and expertise. If he says that the tree would survive, we should accept his evaluation and save it. Why take down such a beautiful tree if it can remain?

Like this comment
Posted by Ol' Homeboy
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 14, 2011 at 9:18 am

It's refreshing to see a city employee and licensed professional (regardless of what city employs him) have the "cojones" to speak out and put his professional reputation on the line regarding this tree.
As most residents don't know, until about a month ago (when he was demoted) Menlo Park's city arborist for years was not even a licensed arborist. I wonder how many decisions on heritage tree removal were made incorrectly during his tenure with the city (and, I wonder if he retires with 90% of his top salary)?
Kudos to Mr. Coate!

Like this comment
Posted by Rick
a resident of another community
on Jun 24, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Mr. Coate has not been the Saratoga city arborist for several years now. He is a well respected horticulturalist with his own consulting business.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

After experiencing harassment, owner of Zareen's restaurants speaks out about Islamophobia, racism
By Elena Kadvany | 28 comments | 7,612 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 14 comments | 2,508 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 8 comments | 2,461 views

Good News: The New Menlo Park Rail Subcommittee Hits A Home Run
By Dana Hendrickson | 12 comments | 1,640 views

Premarital and Couples: Tips for Hearing (Listening) and Being Known
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,041 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More