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Menlo Park: City Council supports updates to heritage tree ordinance

Axed trees to get equal-value replacements and other changes ahead

If Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax" were set in Menlo Park, the Seussian character who "speaks" for the trees would be not one creature on a soapbox, but a set of disparate voices that, over the course of many months, has argued its way toward an acceptable compromise.

Those voices would be the members of the Menlo Park Heritage Tree Ordinance Task Force, who were not tasked with speaking for the trees exactly, but with figuring out how to preserve heritage trees around the city with a reliable policy framework.

After spending more than a year and 10 public meetings hashing out amendments to the city's heritage tree ordinance, the task force's recommendations were brought to the City Council July 16.

Task force members are Sally Cole, resident; Drew Combs, city councilman; Jen Judas, resident; Kimberly and Tom LeMieux, developer/residents; Scott Marshall, former environmental quality commissioner; Catherine Martineau, executive director for Canopy; Horace Nash, resident; Carolyn Ordonez, landscape architect; and Sally Sammut Johnson, resident.

The City Council mainly agreed with the recommendations, and asked staff to draft up the amendments for later approval.

Among the changes endorsed:

● When a tree is removed for development-related reasons, the developer will have to replace the value of the tree at that property.

● The city will ensure that replacement trees are taken care of by requiring two inspections – one to verify that the tree has been planted, and the other two years later to ensure the tree is in good health.

● The city will increase the fee for violating the ordinance to the value of the tree, or if the tree's value can't be appraised, the fee will be $10,000, up from $5,000.

● Fees that are collected will go toward the city's tree fund.

The policy changes and increased enforcement are expected to cost the city $185,000 to $200,000 a year.

While protecting trees is one goal - and the primary one behind the ordinance update, explained city Sustainability Manager Rebecca Lucky - the task force also sought changes that would provide clearer expectations for people applying for heritage tree removal permits and to have the policy work more effectively, with better enforcement and less community conflict.

The task force also debated whether the Environmental Quality Commission should have the responsibility of handling heritage tree removal permit appeals. These appeals are often tense and time-consuming, and can take away time from the other projects the Environmental Quality Commission is working on, said Lucky.

Earlier this year, a series of lengthy and intense public hearings and even rallies were held over the fate of seven redwood trees near the corner of El Camino Real and Ravenswood Avenue.

A policy analysis report recommended that a new hearing body be created for reviewing appeals, in which members would be city residents with some urban forest and planning experience who support preserving trees. The task force also wanted a new board, but didn't think members need to be subject area experts, according to a staff report.

The City Council sided with staff, favoring leaving the matter among the responsibilities of the Environmental Quality Commission. Councilwoman Betsy Nash said doing so could yield more consistent appeal decisions.

In addition, Mayor Ray Mueller expressed interest in creating a competition to see if anyone can develop an application that would let owners of new trees snap photos and provide the needed evidence to inspectors that the tree is doing well, rather than making staff evaluate each tree in person, which is a significant component of the program's estimated cost increase.

The task force is scheduled to meet again in September and in October to discuss ideas about how to implement the policies and review draft ordinance language and community feedback.

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