Wed11262014

Preserving heritage trees

I would like to follow up on an article in the Town Crier on Heritage Oak trees (“Neighbors mourn, but Los Altos justifies removal of giant oak trees,” Oct. 9). I do appreciate that our neighbors and city officials followed the letter of the law and probably had the best of intentions. Still, I believe that this case and the removal of a third Heritage Oak on an adjacent property within the last year raise several issues, namely, tree stewardship and homeowner vs. community rights and responsibilities.

The main problem with the current law is that it does not allow for an independent assessment of a tree’s health, provide for public notification or specify the homeowner’s responsibility for caring for heritage trees. I know what such care entails because I have two Heritage Oaks on my property. There are always risks involved living near such trees, and costs can easily average up to $1,000 per year. But I assumed those risks and responsibilities when I purchased my property.

Without an independent assessment or clear lines of responsibility drawn, it is too easy for conflicts of interest to arise or for lawsuits to be threatened. For example, my arborist, who did not inspect the trees on these two other properties, is aware of cases where there was a clear conflict of interest, with the arborist providing the tree assessment the same one who would eventually earn thousands of dollars to remove it.

Also, the homeowner may not have a clear incentive to maintain the tree. The tree that was taken out earlier this year developed a fungus that the prior owners ignored while they sought to sell the property. The new owners told me that they would not have purchased the property if they could not have removed the tree to make way for their new large home, which maximizes the lot’s buildable footprint.

I also don’t believe that you can look at a tree and think it is like a carton of milk with an expected expiration date. Normally, if properly maintained, these trees can provide benefits for generations, hence the term “heritage.” But an owner may not want to incur maintenance costs, especially if a tree limits remodeling options.

I respect homeowners’ rights to develop their property, but what rights should we afford the tree and the community? Heritage trees that may have been around for more than 50 years become part of the community landscape and provide countless environmental benefits.

A city planner told me that it is neither difficult nor expensive to notify neighbors when the city issues a tree-removal permit. Mountain View’s Heritage Tree Ordinance, Chapter 32, Article II, requires public notification when a removal permit is issued and public hearings to review any appeals. It also clearly states that a homeowner is “responsible for maintaining and preserving all Heritage Trees in a state of good health.”

Los Altos Hills delineates its policies in Title 12, Article 4 of its Municipal Code. It requires, in part, that the town mail written notice of the removal permit application to owners of all abutting properties, with limited exceptions. If the town receives protests within 10 days of the date of the mailing, the Los Altos Hills Site Development Committee schedules a hearing.

I and other neighbors gladly would have paid my arborist to inspect my neighbor’s trees, even if it only gave us peace of mind that the trees required removal. For a small administrative cost, our community could have avoided shock and suspicion and gained consensus.

If this column awakens your inner Lorax and you agree that the city of Los Altos should modify its policy toward heritage trees, please contact the city council and/or write to the Town Crier to make your voice heard. Perhaps this is also an issue for GreenTown Los Altos.

Terese Blockus is a Los Altos resident.

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