City Council tries to settle dispute involving former councilman and a 300-year-old tree

This tree at 2353 Webster St. is the focus of a neighborhood dispute. Post photo.

BY SARA TABIN
Daily Post Staff Writer

Palo Alto City Council, in a meeting that went on until midnight, redesigned a proposed home on Webster Street after an appeal was filed by a next door neighbor, former councilman Jack Morton, who said the project would kill a 300-year-old oak tree.

Yali Zhou, of 2353 Webster St., wants to replace the existing one-story house with a two-story home with a new basement. The tree is on Zhou’s property. Her proposed design went through the city’s Individual Review process for home projects and was approved by the city in December over the complaints of Morton and others.

Morton and Mary Ellen White are the owners of 2343 Webster St., a single-story home next door to Zhou.
Morton and other neighbors said the basement will invade the root space of the tree and result in the draining of water from the property, something called de-watering.

Other residents called in to the meeting on Monday, which was held on the Zoom platform due to the pandemic.

Trish Goity said that since there is no way to see underground, the city can’t be sure how a basement will impact the tree.

Anne Goes, who grew up on the property, said having one family enjoy a large basement is not good for the community overall.

“When you go back and there is nothing but a stump remember that this council did that to you,” said Curtis Smolar.

Two candidates running for city council voiced support for the neighbors who are protesting Zhou’s plans.

Rebecca Eisenberg said she and her husband looked at the house but didn’t buy it because of all the legal protections associated with the tree. She said Zhou should have known she couldn’t make changes that might hurt the tree.

Current Planning Commissioner Cari Templeton said the proposed house will never live as long as the tree already has. She said there is no way to replace the tree once it is gone.

Zhou told council she has worked hard to make sure her house plans don’t hurt the tree. She said that this is the first time since she came to California that she has felt unwelcome.

City Urban Forester Walter Passmore said the tree’s roots likely only go down about four feet, given the soil conditions on the property. This means the tree is probably not relying on groundwater now, according to Passmore. He said supplemental water will be provided to the tree if needed.

Both sides of the dispute brought in their own arborists with different opinions about whether the basement will harm the tree.

Councilman Greg Tanaka suggested the city use radar to determine definitively where the roots of the tree are located.

In the end, Councilwoman Liz Kniss moved that the project be approved with an 8-foot basement instead of the proposed 10-foot basement. In exchange, the house will be allowed to be one foot taller.

Mayor Adrian Fine, who voted against the decision, said he didn’t think a group of non-architects should redesign the project at midnight. Councilwoman Alison Cormack also voted against it saying she isn’t comfortable designing from the dais.

Councilman Eric Filseth said he doesn’t think the changes make sense. He said if the roots of the tree are deep and sensitive then the tree will still be impacted by a slightly lower basement.

City Attorney Molly Stump said it is “of concern” for the council to make last-minute changes to the home’s design after a project has gone through the lengthy individual review process. But she said the change is small enough that the city shouldn’t have to redo the entire process.

Gordana Pavlovic, Zhou’s designer, said she will have to look over the project before she knows how the new changes will impact her plans.

3 Comments

  1. People who purchase properties with heritage trees have a responsibility to take care of the tree, not risk harming it. This case is among a number of heritage trees that are being seriously imperiled by new houses. The pattern is becoming quite common. Some of the cases involve “act first, don’t bother to ask”. The values of some new residents are different than those of yesteryear, and unless the City takes action to protect its trees aggressively, we are on our way to losing many of our larger trees.

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