Disappearing oaks: County stops short of moratorium on tree removals

County will explore hiring an arborist, tightening its tree regulations

A group trying to preserve its neighborhood's tree canopy won a partial victory Tuesday, July 26, as the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors agreed to fast-track major changes to the laws that protect trees in unincorporated county areas, but stopped short of passing the emergency ordinance Menlo Oaks residents had asked for.

Residents of Menlo Oaks, an unincorporated Menlo Park neighborhood east of Middlefield Road and north of Willow Road, had asked San Mateo County to pass emergency rules to protect their neighborhood's namesake oak trees, which they say have been disappearing at an alarming rate.

All five of the supervisors agreed something should be done. But, after hearing from Steve Monowitz, director of the county's planning and building department, that putting a moratorium on removing trees in the Menlo Oaks neighborhood would tie the county's hands in issuing permits for projects in the area, the supervisors instead asked for some "fast-track" changes in the tree regulations.

Supervisors asked to have the fines increased for not following the tree-protection rules. They also asked to have the county hire a staff arborist instead of allowing applicants to pay their own arborists for reports.

Supervisor Dave Pine suggested fines be increased to be closer to those in towns such as Woodside. "Once a tree is down, that's a big problem," he said. "A hundred-year (old) tree, you can't really replace it."

"I think we need to hire an arborist," Supervisor Carole Groom said. "If we hire our own, he has to follow our rules because he works for us," she said, adding that the arborist could well be a "she."

Supervisor Warren Slocum suggested the county might look into fining the companies that cut down the trees without permits instead of the property owner. County attorney John Beiers said he would look into the legality of such fines, which he called "a creative idea and worthwhile to explore."

Supervisor Don Horsley suggested the county solicit the help of the Sheriff's Office to respond to complaints on weekends. "We do get reports," he said. "They can hear chainsaws going on a Saturday -- the tree is gone."

Neighbors who spoke at the meeting continued to urge immediate action. Janet Weisman-Goff said that there are several properties in the neighborhood that have recently been sold, including one with a grove of large redwood trees, that could soon be the subject of proposed development.

"We need protection now," she said.

Mr. Beiers said he thought he could work with the planning and building department on ordinance changes that could be brought back to the board as soon as September.

County Manager John Maltbie said the position of a county arborist, that might be shared between the parks and planning and building departments, can be included in the September budget discussions as well.

After the meeting, Judy Horst, one of the Menlo Oaks neighbors who has led the efforts to preserve the neighborhood's tree canopy, said the neighbors appreciate the supervisors' concerns and questions "about the changes needed to stop the unnecessary removal" of trees.

While the neighbors would have preferred changes that went into effect immediately, "we like the new more environmentally sound and community-sensitive direction the county is moving in," she said.

Mr. Monowitz said the county is also working on other changes in the tree ordinance that will be brought back later, including streamlining the process for removing non-native invasive tree species. The complete revamping of the tree regulations will probably take a year, he said, and involve residents of many of the unincorporated neighborhoods.


● Contact the tree advocacy group through its website.

● See the staff reports and other information on the Menlo Oaks residents' request for an emergency ordinance on the county's website.

● See an earlier Almanac story on the Menlo Oaks residents' request that the county save their oaks.

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8 people like this
Posted by TAT
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Jul 28, 2016 at 2:06 pm

As a resident of unicorporated SM County, I am very concerned about the removal of our precious oaks. In an effort to restore and secure his views, one member of our rural neighborhood took advantage of a nextdoor vacancy during a foreclosure to denude the lovely trees from that lot as well as his own. This was a criminal travesty, and he suffered no consequences as far as I know. It would be very good if the County not only imposed stricter regulation of tree removal, but also levied steep fines for those who fail to follow County regulations.
The idea of fining the tree removal services may be a deterrent IF licensed businesses are used, but many who cut down trees appear to be random workers with a pickup truck and a chainsaw, and these people likely would be judgment proof. While ignorance is no defense, new property owners frequently are unaware of their responsibilities with regard to tree removal, septic systems, and other matters unique to rural living. Perhaps at the time a property purchase is recorded by the County, as a condition of the recording/sale, buyers in unincorporated areas of the County could be provided with (and sign receipts for) the information they will need in order to be responsible property owners and stewards of the landscape.

With drought-enhanced vulnerability to pine beetles and sudden oak death, no trees should be removed unless they are sick, pose a safety hazard, or are in the way of ESSENTIAL, permitted development.

2 people like this
Posted by Kate Fickle
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jul 28, 2016 at 6:01 pm

As a resident of Menlo Oaks, I support the preservation of our heritage oak trees. Some in our neighborhood expand the goal of protection to include trees non-native to this specific location, including redwoods. I encourage those drafting any new regulations to be thoughtful about which trees are protected, and which are not. The Menlo Oaks tree protection advocates would do a great service to the neighborhood if they helped educate residents on which trees are appropriate for our soil and weather conditions.

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Posted by Janet Goff
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jul 29, 2016 at 4:48 pm

Hi, Kate! Redwoods aren't indigenous like oaks are, but if they measure 48" around at 4 1/2 feet from the ground they are protected. A tree that large has survived for a few hundred years and provides oxygen, wildlife habitat and abundant shade. It filters airborne particulates from 101 and inhibits soil erosion. To find out more about heritage and significant trees and tree care you can visit the Menlo Oaks Tree Association website.

Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jul 29, 2016 at 5:07 pm

I just googled "how fast does redwood tree grow" and up came this arborist video showing a tree that looks much bigger than 48in circumference at only 32 years old. He claims he has seen a 7ft diameter redwood that was 65 years old . . . that is roughly 22ft circumference, WOW!

Web Link

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