Tejaswini Ravindra is nervous about traveling over the holidays. It’s not so much the omicron variant or the trip itself that are weighing on her – she’s been looking forward to a vacation with her husband and son – but what might happen in her absence.
“I’m worried about leaving because, when my back is turned, what if some trees get cut down?”
Ravindra is not your average tie dye-wearing tree hugger but rather a mother and resident of North Fair Oaks, an unincorporated area between Redwood City and Menlo Park that has been the focus of recent redevelopment by the Los Angeles-native realty company Thomas James Homes. She and other residents say that as homes have gone up, trees have come down.
“The first casualty was on 14th Avenue,” said resident Niket Sirsi. “Ever since I've lived here, it's been about 10 years now, that street has always been very beautiful. You’ve got these majestic ashes that are lining on both sides. And as soon as [TJ Homes put up the fences, there was a permit to remove the tree.”
Since coming last December into North Fair Oaks, TJ Homes has purchased half a dozen properties, tearing down the existing houses and building larger, more expensive ones in their place. The firm has also proposed the removal of 12 trees, of which three are protected, and has preserved 17, with the intention of planting 14 new ones.
The situation has become so concerning that Ravindra, Sirsi and dozens of other residents in the North Fair Oaks neighborhood known as "the Avenues" have found themselves in an escalating battle with the developer. What began as a small group of disgruntled neighbors has grown into a coalition of residents locking arms against the tide of new developments and tree removals—and the changes it may spell for their neighborhood.
On a recent walking tour through the quiet, shaded pocket of North Fair Oaks that borders Menlo Park, 36-year resident Susanne Beattie admired the dense greenery overhead, pointing out a few notable trees.
One, in particular, is a point of pride for the community.
“That’s the Granny tree, right here,” Beattie said as she gazed across the street. “They wanted to cut that down.”
“Granny,” as neighbors affectionately call the 250-300-year-old oak tree, comes into view, its extensive network of branches forming an impressive canopy. Were it not for the neighbors this towering heritage tree might not exist: In 2011, resident Mary Ann Mullen launched a campaign to protect the 65-foot oak, ultimately halting a water pipeline project that would have damaged the tree or possibly uprooted it altogether.
Residents of the Avenues take stewardship of their greenery seriously. According to Laura Caplan, resident and current president of Fair Oaks Beautification Association, a volunteer urban forestry group, the neighborhood has planted some 400 trees since the 1990s, and they’re working on getting permits to plant more.
“Those trees have grown up to become quite a beautiful mature canopy in this area. And very much appreciated by everyone who lives here,” said Caplan. “And also it's made it more attractive, I think, to developers because, ‘Oh, here's this little gem of a neighborhood.’”
“[The neighborhood changed so much over the years. It's just amazing,” Beattie said during the walking tour, nostalgia in her voice as she pointed out the newly constructed houses. “Back then when we first bought, this was a more blue collar, much more rundown kind of place.”
She paid about $160,000 for her house, with three bedrooms and one story, in the 1980s. Her home was “one of the nicest” at the time, she said.
“This is twofold, what we have going on,” said Chris Boeddiker, another frustrated NFO resident, from her house on 15th Avenue. “It's about the trees. That's number 1. Number 2 is TJ Homes – ”
“And the monstrosities they’re building,” Beattie said, interjecting.
In late June of 2021, TJ Homes purchased three more properties on 15th Avenue, each of which included a “significant tree,” meaning a tree of a specific size, as articulated by a county ordinance.
“And literally after they put up the fence, there'd be a tree permit,” Sirsi said. “And that's again when we started saying, ‘Okay, what's going on?’ We started trying to investigate.”
The residents built a website, collected signatures for a petition to protect the canopy and planted accusatory signs on their lawns. “Say No to TJ Homes” became their rallying cry. They created spreadsheets to track the new developments and tree removal permits. They began to scrutinize TJ Homes’ every move, documenting alleged violations like instances of construction happening outside of working hours and damage caused to heritage trees.
Tree activists say the neighbors are right to be worried. Cutting down trees not only hurts the resident wildlife but also affects community health and resilience to climate change, according to one expert.
“There has to be more understanding that the health of the community is really tied into canopy cover and that if you're removing a lot of large trees, heritage trees, then the next 15 years of that community are going to be impacted,” said Maya Briones, Community Forestry Coordinator for Canopy, a local forestry nonprofit. “That should matter, you know. That should be taken seriously into consideration when creating plans.”
According to TJ Homes, their intentions are simply to address the need for more housing, which sometimes requires the removal of a tree.
“We're big believers in trees. Trees are great for everybody,” said Jon Tattersall, president of TJ Homes’ Northern California office, adding that, while some were removed for design purposes, others posed a threat because they were diseased or in poor health. “We are not in the business of removing trees unnecessarily. Do we have to remove trees at times because it does conflict with a new build? We do.”
He also said TJ Homes tries to work with the natural environment and employs three landscape architects to “maximize trees” and “improve the tree canopy on every single home that we build.”
Per ordinance, removing a tree requires the completion of a permit application, including a report from an arborist, which must then be approved by the county. While the neighbors acknowledge that the developers have been approved to remove all trees, they worry about a conflict of interest in the permitting process.
“The people who’re applying to cut down the trees are the ones who are hiring arborists,” said Ravindra.
Boeddiker expressed concern that the city may be “rubber-stamping” the permit applications. In examining the approved permits, she said, the neighbors found errors, including one permit that included a former owner’s name (without her approval) and another that underreported the size of a date palm.
City planner Melissa Ross, however, emphasized that the person writing the tree report must be a certified arborist. Though she wasn’t aware of any permits being revoked because of a discrepancy in the application, she acknowledged that the county oversight is limited.
“We don't have the resources to have the one county arborist go to every single tree removal site,” she said. “But [county arborist Dan Krug will go out in instances where it's unclear or if he would like more information on the tree removal.”
At a recent public meeting, TJ Homes' executive vice president of asset management, Adam Kates, thanked the community for their concerns about the health of the tree canopy and said the company plans to step up oversight of measures to protect existing trees.
But some attendees were not so easily convinced.
“I felt that they were not completely representing reality,” Ravindra told the Pulse after the meeting. “I've completely lost trust in them as a company, and I really would appreciate if the county would provide us more support. See, we have nothing against development, but I feel development can be done in a sustainable manner.”
After months of organizing, the neighbors are tired of being “constantly vigilant,” as Ravindra said, and are asking the county to intervene.
They’ve met with County District 4 Supervisor Warren Slocum and members of his office twice, in October and November, and according to Slocum, his staff is currently “analyzing, researching, studying, discussing possible options” for steps the county can take to address the conflict and better moderate ongoing changes to the neighborhood. He said they’re considering everything from strengthening their tree ordinance to implementing a design review for future housing projects.
“It gets down to the question of, what kind of neighborhood and community do you want to live in?” he said. “How do these laws and regulations help control gentrification and large-scale developments?”
But he admitted that resources are finite, and the current system is a “complaint-driven” one.
Slocum said he expects to meet with the North Fair Oaks neighbors again in the new year to discuss his staff’s findings and next steps. Ultimately, he said, “I’d like to find the balance between the private rights of property owners and trying to maintain the integrity of a neighborhood.”
In the meantime, the neighbors continue to wait, watch and worry.
“The consistent refrain we're getting from anybody who we asked about this is like, ‘We're just following the law. We're doing everything that's allowed by the county,’” Sirsi said. “We’re like, ‘Fine, but are you doing what's actually right for the neighborhood? What's right for the area? The community?’”
“We are just volunteers,” Ravindra said. “And if we get busy, then who will follow up about these trees?”