Delayed but not axed: Bike path tree removal project to proceed

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Palo Alto urban forester Walter Passmore, in fluorescent vest, leads community members on a tour of the Los Altos-Palo Alto Bike Path, far right, along the way pointing out trees set to be removed and pruned.

In October 2015, residents of Palo Alto’s Barron Park neighborhood were shocked to see mature oaks and other trees bulldozed along the nearby Bol Park Pathway. Their removal, the residents came to learn, was needed to accommodate the relocation of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System’s Loop Road.

“It went from something that was totally hidden by trees to a situation where we have these buildings looming over the bike path for a half-mile,” said Frank Crossman of Barron Park.

Hopes of preventing another Bol Park Pathway “situation” are what drew Crossman and approximately 40 other local residents to a Nov. 20 informational meeting hosted by Palo Alto officials on the Los Altos-Palo Alto Bike Path, a half-mile scenic stretch of pavement between Los Altos Avenue and Arastradero Road. Sixteen mature trees are slated for removal and approximately 100 others must be pruned on the Palo Alto side of the path to both allow the city to expand the asphalt from 8 feet to 10 feet and to adhere to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s Integrated Vegetation Management Policy. Two Hetch Hetchy water pipes run underground on the site, and the SFPUC requires clearance of vegetation that could impede pipe repair, maintenance and future installations on its land.

Much to the dismay of some regular path users, the plans will necessitate felling the ancient drooping oaks that create the tunneling effect over the pavement. Protests have delayed the entire project by weeks – long enough for the Nov. 20 meeting to act as a type of diffuser – but they can’t stop what now seems inevitable.

Assigning blame

Comments made by city staff at the meeting suggested SFPUC demands are the main impetus for the tree removal and downplayed the widening of the path, which is part of the city’s Charleston/Arastradero Corridor project.

Holly Boyd, senior engineer with the Palo Alto Public Works Department, told the assembled crowd that staffers and SFPUC reps have been reviewing the required work since June 2017.

“I’ll be honest: When we first met with them, they wanted us to remove every single tree, and we spent a year talking to them, telling them we’re not going to do it; we’ll walk away,” Boyd said, later adding that she didn’t “want to say anything bad about another agency, but it has been a lot of work.”

Palo Alto resident Penny Ellson uses the path to bike between volunteer jobs at area schools.

“It makes me sorrowful that they feel a need to do this, but I don’t know that we have a choice,” Ellson said. “It sounds to me like this is a policy requirement and it sounds like city staff has pushed back.”

The axed trees – oaks, privets, an acacia, a cherry and an elderberry – will remain onsite as mulch. The trees marked for pruning must be trimmed to allow for at least a 15-foot vertical height clearance so large vehicles and equipment can pass under unhindered.

“We’re going to prune as little as we think they’ll accept first and require (SFPUC) to come back in and correct us if we didn’t do enough,” assured Walter Passmore, an urban forester with the city.

As of the Town Crier’s press deadline, there was no set date for the work to begin.

No one from SFPUC attended the meeting, and when residents asked Boyd for agency representatives’ contact information, she said they explicitly told city officials not to share any with the public.

SFPUC communications manager Betsy Lauppe Rhodes issued a statement when the Town Crier requested subsequent comment.

“Although the SFPUC sometimes leases portions of these right-of-way lands for secondary uses, such as trails, their primary purpose is a pipeline corridor that millions of people depend upon,” she wrote in part. “SFPUC staff have been working closely with City of Palo Alto staff on the careful selection of trees needing to be removed or maintained to bring this section of right-of-way into compliance with existing SFPUC policies and for Palo Alto’s project to widen the bike path.”

For more on the project, visit Direct questions to city of Palo Alto officials at 329-2295.

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