It happened on Jan. 27, the night that an atmospheric river triggered a landslide that sent a huge chunk of Highway 1 near Big Sur crumbling into the ocean.
That stormy night, witnesses allege, it appeared that several people swiftly cut down a large oak tree on a residential construction site in West Menlo Park.
Neighbors of the site were shocked – they had just paid more than $600 in fees to appeal for the tree's preservation to the San Mateo County Planning Commission.
The tree, a 50-foot-tall coast live oak located at 2050 Santa Cruz Ave., was cut down by the property's developer, confirmed staff at the San Mateo County Planning and Building Department.
A stop work order was put into effect, and the developer is being fined $4,385, according to emails provided to The Almanac. In addition, the San Mateo County Planning Commission is scheduled to review the matter at its upcoming meeting on March 10.
The developer, Zume Builders, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Gregory Faris, whose property abuts the construction site, told The Almanac he was concerned because of the rapid way the tree was cut down. It posed a threat to his family and property, he said.
According to Faris, there were three men who came in a white pickup truck and worked in the dark and the rain with a chainsaw to fell the tree in a matter of minutes.
His son recorded several videos while the tree was being cut down. In the videos, it's too dark to see exactly what was happening, but the audio recorded that night sounds like a chainsaw and the creak of a large tree falling over.
The tree could easily have fallen the other way and hit his house, patio and even his son, Faris said.
"Fortunately, nobody did get hurt, but it was very reckless," he said.
"I don't want to see people so desperate to take a tree down that they endanger the crew and the neighbors – it's just absurd," he added.
Residents near the construction site expressed shock at the developer's brazen attitude toward county regulations.
"The tree just came down," said another neighbor, who asked not to be named due to fear of retaliation from the developer.
"We did everything we were supposed to do and the developer did what he wanted to do."
When asked how common it is for developers to disregard county protocols and cut down large trees without permits, county planners said in an email that "tree removal under circumstances similar to this case happens very rarely."
Lynne McClure, another neighbor of the construction site, said over email that the neighbors have worked for years with the county to try to protect a series of oak trees at that property.
The county Planning Commission reviewed the development proposal in 2017 and approved plans to divide the property into three lots and create a new private street connecting them called Cardinal Court. At the time, the county recommended modifications to the proposal to better protect several trees on the property, according to county planning documents.
As part of the approval, the developer agreed to go through a permitting process to remove the tree in question, McClure explained.
"Upon receipt of the permit application to remove this tree, we neighbors rallied to file an appeal," she said.
"If people wonder why one tree is so important, it seems that preserving our environment in the face of climate catastrophe takes place one tree at a time," she said.
The neighbors had noted that the tree was 2 feet inside the envelope of one of the new proposed houses, and that they had appealed to the county to encourage the developer to be "creative about how they place the house and save the tree," Faris said.
The appeal came together near the deadline – it was submitted Jan. 25, with a Tuesday deadline of Jan. 26, and because of the pandemic, the $635 payment for the appeal could not be processed until Wednesday, Jan. 27.
That night, the tree was cut down.
The neighbors' frustration with the situation has much to do with the hewn-down tree, but some also expressed frustration with another longer-running tension in their neighborhood: Would this have happened if their neighborhood was within Menlo Park city limits?
McClure, for one, is skeptical. "The owner/developer may have been defiant under the city too, but I think the city is more vigilant and more clear about the rules and regulations," she said in an email.
Faris said he wasn't sure if being in city limits would have helped. "The tree would be considered a heritage tree in the City of Menlo Park, and it might afford the tree more protections. However, the people who cut the tree down had no respect for the law, so I imagine they would have cut it down whether the property were in the county or the city," he said in an email.
The site is within a triangle of unincorporated Menlo Park bounded by Santa Cruz Avenue, Alameda de las Pulgas and Sharon Road, where residents have sought annexation into the city of Menlo Park since 2016.
From the outset, one reason some residents, including McClure, have said that they want to be part of the city is because Menlo Park has more stringent protections and enforcement of regulations around heritage trees compared to unincorporated areas.
However, the residents' request for annexation has been tied up and tabled as the county and city have struggled to negotiate over how to manage the liabilities and benefits of taking on the area.
In the meantime, Faris expressed concerns that the repercussions the developer faces from the county may not be enough to deter future disrespect for the rules by others.
"There's a lot of money at stake," Faris said, noting he estimated that each of the three new homes would likely sell for around $4 million. A $4,000 fine on $12 million is 0.03% of the overall estimated sale price not much, he argued.
"I think something needs to happen to make this developer and other developers understand that you don't just do things like this," he said.
A county staff report brought up another point that would have perhaps protected the trees, and would have likely posed a bigger obstacle for the developer. If the triangle were to be annexed, the report said, the neighborhood would likely undergo a "prezoning" process, and would likely be incorporated into a part of the city's zoning code that sets a 10,000-square-foot minimum lot size. As a result, the three new homes would likely not have been permitted at all, the report said.
The San Mateo County Planning Commission is scheduled to review the matter of the axed oak at its March 10 meeting. The agenda is set to be posted on March 4 at is.gd/smcpc310.