Los Altos residents have little recourse if their neighbors want to cut down a mature tree on their own property. However, the city has strict guidelines for tree removal, most notably proof that the tree is dying and at risk of falling.
That’s little consolation to some residents of Cypress Drive, who last week mourned the loss of two 50-foot Majestic Oaks deemed diseased and a threat to homes they towered over. Neighbor Terese Blockus called their removal “heartbreaking. We’re just so sad that these trees are gone.”
“It’s sad for us, too,” said Stacey Niermann, the homeowner who ordered the trees removed. “I’ll always feel like I’ve lost something.”
Although Niermann and other homeowners before her loved the oaks – the garage was altered several times to give way to the encroaching front tree – safety became the paramount concern.
“We knew when we purchased the home that they had about 10 years to live,” she said. “When it came up on the 10-year mark, I became worried.”
She noted that another oak fell last year and missed her neighbor “by a foot.” Her front-yard oak leaned in her neighbor’s direction.
“At the end of the day, is (the tree) more valuable than the neighbor’s life?” Niermann asked.
She added that the tree in back posed a threat to her own family.
Blockus said she understood that her neighbor had a legitimate reason for the trees’ removal. But she also thought that there was a 10-day period during which the removal permit could be appealed. The city is not required to provide neighborhood notification.
“That’s a flaw in their policy,” Blockus said.
Assistant City Manager James Walgren indicated that the 10-day period is to enable the homeowner to appeal a permit denial. He said tree protections are tighter now than they were prior to 2007, when the council moved to protect all mature trees with a more restrictive policy.
Present-day criteria include “condition of the tree with respect to disease, imminent danger of falling, proximity to existing or proposed structures and interference with utility services” and “the effect the removal would have upon shade, privacy impact, scenic beauty, property values … of the area.”
“We’re very cautious with the permits we do issue,” Walgren said, estimating that the city issues approximately 100 tree-removal permits annually. “While only a small percentage are denied, a large percentage are averted at the front counter based on the criteria.
Walgren said he thought past councils were comfortable with not requiring neighbor notification based on the careful analysis that goes into approving a tree-removal permit.
He added that replacement trees are typically required, and “hundreds of new trees get planted annually as a result of development approvals.” Niermann said she planned to replant.
Los Altos officials issued the permit Aug. 29.
City Manager Marcia Somers said the permit for the Cypress Drive property was granted “because in part, per an arborist’s report, the trees were severely diseased. I know from my own past experience, sometimes the ill health of a tree is not evident to the casual observer.”