San Mateo County has beefed up its tree protection regulations after residents of Menlo Oaks, in unincorporated Menlo Park, complained that their namesake oak trees were falling prey to development at an alarming rate.
The new rules went into effect Nov. 17 after being approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in September and October.
Steve Monowitz, the county's community development director, said the new rules will "increase protection of heritage trees and significant trees" in unincorporated areas of the county.
He said the county is actually working on a complete overhaul of its tree regulations, first adopted in 1977, but Menlo Oaks residents had asked for something to be done quickly to stop trees from disappearing from their neighborhood before its character was destroyed.
The rules affect all trees defined by the county as significant or larger, which in most zones is anything 38-inches-or-more in circumference at 4.5 feet above ground.
Any development that could affect trees of "significant" size or larger may be required to have a tree-protection plan. Tree protection zones must be established and maintained throughout construction. Any activity that requires tree roots to be cut requires the presence of an arborist.
No construction will be allowed without the tree protection plan in place.
Fines for illegally taking out trees have been increased to $2,500 for the first significant tree and $5,000 for the first heritage tree. (Heritage tree sizes vary by tree species, but a valley oak that measures more than 48 inches around at 4.5 feet above the ground qualifies, as does a redwood of more than 72 inches around at that height east of Skyline Boulevard or 84 inches around west of Skyline.)
Fines rise to $7,500 for illegally removing a second heritage tree and $10,000 for each additional heritage tree. Fines for illegal significant tree removal are half the amount of heritage tree fines.
When the supervisors discussed the proposed law in September, Supervisor Carol Groom said she'd like the fines to be even larger. "This is a good start," she said.
The county will hire its own arborist, to be shared between the parks and planning departments, County Manager John Maltbie said.
Most of the residents at the meeting cheered the changes.
"Thank you so much," said Menlo Oaks resident Janet Weisman Goff. "We feel a glimmer of hope that maybe we will retain our tree canopy in Menlo Oaks."
But new resident Suzanne O'Brien said she saw the rules as "government intervention in private property" that "seem to run the risk of putting undue burden on homeowners who are merely trying to protect the health of the tree."
Supervisor Don Horsley said there are multiple reasons to defend trees. "We're not doing this to protect the trees because it makes a few people happy," he said. Trees fight greenhouse gases, he noted. He asked the planning department to work with the Sheriff's Office to respond to complaints of illegal tree work when planners aren't working.
At the county website (Item 38) you can download the new regulations and staff report.