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Heritage Tree Task Force Recommendations (7/16/19 Item I-2)

From: domainremoved <Horace>
Date: Mon, 15 Jul 2019 11:33:24 -0700

July 15, 2019

 

To: Menlo Park City Council

From: Task Force Members Cole, Ordonez, Martineau, Nash

Re: Heritage Tree Task Force Staff Report

 

Dear Councilmembers,

Thank you for authorizing the creation of the Heritage Tree Task Force, including originally a dozen members of the public (ten remain) to represent the wide variety of viewpoints on how to improve our City’s management of heritage tree removals. The Task Force was asked to update the Heritage Tree Ordinance that Menlo Park has had on the books for decades, and which reflects the importance of heritage trees to our community. This letter seeks to bring to your attention a few important issues raised by the official Staff Report.

Factual background helps to put our task in context. In Menlo Park, a Tree City that for the past 45 years has continuously strived to manage heritage tree removals, staff analysis revealed that over 700 heritage trees are removed each year. On average, just two or three removal permits are appealed each year. On top of these permitted removals, an unknown number of heritage trees are removed or severely pruned without review or permit. Menlo Park is widely admired for, and highly values, its terrific trees, but it has been difficult to educate residents and developers about how the process works, and to enforce the permit and replacement tree requirements.

The task force collectively concluded that improving the clarity of the heritage tree ordinance would make it easier to understand and to implement, reducing confusion about the process while smoothing community relations. Please take a moment to review the new “Intent and Purpose” language of the ordinance; that language was written by the task force volunteers themselves, and approved unanimously, as the expression of what we believe Menlo Park should expect from an effective heritage tree ordinance. This is the only actual language of the revised ordinance that has been drafted to date, and we urge those tasked with preparing the balance of the ordinance language to make reflect the spirit of those words throughout the chapter. We particularly applaud the Staff Report recommendation directing open public access to all heritage tree removal applications, permits and appeals – we believe robust implementation of measures of this sort will improve the transparency of a currently opaque process, while increasing effectiveness of City policy and reducing community friction.

The year-long efforts of the Task Force, including an enormous amount of work by City staff, are reflected the Staff Report, and we generally support its recommendations. We also wish to call your attention to three specific issues:

1. We strongly recommend that the ordinance include language requiring that the City maintain data adequate to assess the effectiveness of the ordinance in achieving its purposes, including a periodic aerial canopy survey, and report to the Council annually. While the City must determine precisely what is needed to do this properly, we feel strongly that effectiveness of the ordinance must be measured if it is to be taken seriously, and that such a mandate should be built into the ordinance. Data gathering for this purpose may be separate from, or related to, whatever is done with respect to a future urban canopy master plan for Menlo Park, but need not await completion of that project.

2. We believe that removal criterion #4 (heritage tree growing into solar collector envelope) was included in the staff recommendation without benefit of a full legal analysis, and should not be included in the final recommendation unless the city attorney provides a formal legal opinion that inclusion is required to comply with state law. Staff presented this criterion as an absolute necessity to bring municipal law in compliance with state law, and if that is indeed the case then we support it. However, our understanding is the relevant state law by its terms does not apply to heritage trees in cities, like Menlo Park, that have a heritage tree ordinance in place (the heritage tree ordinance takes precedence). If that is the case, then including criterion #4 would mean diminishing the protection for our heritage trees. We think it prudent to have counsel look closely at the matter before proceeding.

3. The basic requirement of the existing heritage tree ordinance – to seek a permit before removal or major pruning of a heritage tree – is often ignored by homeowners and knowledgeable landscape professionals, undermining public confidence and neighborhood good will when heritage trees are suddenly removed or severely pruned. While most residents try to comply with the law, sometimes one may ignore these requirements for the sake of convenience, knowing that detection is unlikely and the chance of any penalty is remote. Better education can help, but effective enforcement also requires that penalties for violations of the heritage tree ordinance be meaningful. The staff report recommends, and we support, increasing the maximum fine to up to $10,000, but we also recommend that the Council give serious attention needs to full code enforcement efforts for the heritage tree ordinance, just as we have code enforcement of our building regulations.

Finally, we would like to point out what we believe is an inadvertent error in the Staff Report:

· In removal criterion #5, the term “species desirability” was inadvertently retained in the text of the recommendation as reported by staff, but our recollection and notes indicate that the term was deleted from the final language of the approved recommendation, because it was covered in criterion #6.

We appreciate the opportunity to serve on the City’s Heritage Tree Task Force. Thank you for your attention to these matters.

 

Sally Cole

Carolyn Ordonez

Catherine Martineau

Horace Nash
Received on Mon Jul 15 2019 - 11:27:03 PDT

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