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Los Altos Hills commission supports expanded tree protections

Byrne Preserve
S.M. Lieu/Special to the Town Crier
Byrne Preserve visitors relax under an oak, the only tree species currently designated for protection by name in Los Altos Hills.

Los Altos Hills’ Environmental Design and Protection Committee began researching an update to the town’s tree protection ordinance more than three years ago. When finally able to make the case for expanding protections at last week’s Planning Commission meeting, the EDPC had the misfortune of doing so in the midst of a historic fire season; nearly every public speaker who heard the presentation subsequently insisted more trees mean more fire risk.

“You could imagine this whole discussion happening six months ago, before the fires,” said Commissioner Jim Waschura. “It would have been a completely different discussion. We would have focused on the value of trees and the difficulty of delineating species and what kind of programs we can put in place. And now it has shifted much more so to be an issue of fire protection.”

Nevertheless, commissioners stressed the need to save significant, mature native species from new site developers who’ve gained a reputation in town for denuding properties so they can build – and often quickly sell – the largest residential structures they can. The town’s current tree ordinance, which has existed for three decades, protects only heritage oak trees with a circumference of 36 inches or more, street trees and trees designated by the city council as heritage trees.

Commissioners Thursday directed staff to consult a written recommendation by Open Space Committee member Sue Welch as a framework to update language in proposed amendments to the ordinance. They want to continue the prevention of unpermitted oak removals and said the preservation of natives like madrones and Douglas firs should be based on whatever circumference is typical for a 30-year-old specimen of each species. They also requested input from the Los Altos Hills County Fire District about fire safety and the consultation of an arborist.

Residents protest

Residents flooded social media channels and commissioners’ email inboxes to express their concerns prior to the meeting. A Change.org petition protesting “tightened tree removal restrictions” garnered more than 600 signatures.

Anticipating the storm of opposition to come, commission chairman Rajiv Patel introduced the agenda item by assuring residents they will have plenty of opportunities to voice their opinions on the matter. Town staff expect to return to the commission in a few months with the first of possibly several ordinance iterations, and consideration by the city council would follow any approval by commissioners.

Patel’s assurances, however, didn’t stop a dozen residents from speaking up at Thursday’s meeting.

Phil Mahoney reminded commissioners of the ongoing CZU Lightning Complex fires, which triggered evacuation warnings for areas bordering Los Altos Hills Aug. 23. Cal Fire officials lifted the warning two days later.

“We just had our wake-up call,” Mahoney said. “Are we going to wake up?! Planning Commission, council, please, wake up before we are all burned up.”

Kit Gordon echoed the statements of EDPC member Vijay Chawla and Commissioner Jitze Couperus, reminding the virtual audience that other elemental forces pose a threat to Los Altos Hills residents as well.

“In our hilly terrain, tree roots stabilize steep slopes and prevent landslides,” said Gordon, an Open Space Committee member. “Los Altos Hills is not only overdue for a wildfire. We’re overdue for a mega-rain year with substantial flooding.”

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