City Council expands restrictions on removing trees

Councilman Greer Stone showed this picture from his backyard at tonight's council meeting to illustrate why Palo Alto needs to prevent more trees from being removed. He said he woke up one morning to the sound of chainsaws, and he now has less shade and privacy in his apartment.

Daily Post Staff Writer

Palo Alto City Council voted tonight (June 6) to nearly triple the number of trees that can’t be removed by property owners.

The city will protect 224,000 trees from removal on private property, up from 82,000 before, Public Works Director Brad Eggleston said.

Four new species and trees with trunks wider than 15 inches can’t be removed. The previous rules only applied to valley oaks, coast live oaks and coast redwoods.

Councilman Tom DuBois said the new ordinance is one of the most important changes that City Council has made in recent years. 

The new rules put Palo Alto in line with tree ordinances in Los Altos, Mountain View and Menlo Park, he said.

“With this ordinance, we go from lagging behind to middle of the pack,” he said.

But several members of the public took issue with the limits the new ordinance places on removing a tree, and the extra burden the ordinance places on property owners.

Tiffany Griego, the senior managing director of Stanford Research Park, said many projects in the area would have been thwarted by the tree ordinance, including the Mayfield Place apartments and the Mayfield Soccer Complex.

Stanford and its tenants care about trees, but the city’s ordinance has unintended consequences, she said. 

“We want to caution you from tying your own hands,” she said.

Architect Randy Popp agreed. He said the ordinance requires property owners to hire an arborist to do a property-wide tree report, even if a development is in the front of the house and the trees are in the back.

Supporters of the ordinance said Palo Alto’s canopy is part of its infrastructure, and the trees provide valuable shade and sequester carbon.

Councilman Greer Stone showed a picture of a tree that had been cut down in his backyard on Layne Court in January. He said he woke up one morning to the sound of hacking and chainsaws. When he looked outside, three trees that gave him shade and protected his privacy were gone.

Going into summer, Stone said his apartment is becoming unbearably hot earlier in the day.

Stone said a couple dozen trees were cut down across his apartment complex, and the city, the tenants and neighbors weren’t told in advance because the trees weren’t protected.

Under the new ordinance, property owners are required to send notices to residents within 300 feet, and neighbors can appeal to City Council.

Stone asked if the ordinance could be rushed through to prevent more trees from seeing the same fate, but City Attorney Molly Stump said it would take effect in 45 days.

Trees can be removed only if they’re dead, hazardous or a nuisance, or if they’re damaging a home. 

For development projects, the property owner can only remove a tree if keeping it would take up more than a quarter of the lot, making the project financially infeasible.

Bigleaf maples, incense cedars, blue oaks and California black oaks were added to the list. They’ll be protected once their diameter reaches 11.5 inches, as measured at 4.5 feet off the ground.

The protections for all trees wider than 15 inches don’t apply to invasive species or high water users.

The city will hire a project manager, a planning technician and a specialist to review tree removal permits and enforce the rules. Their pay will cost $300,000 a year, with about half coming from an expected increase in tree removal permits and half coming from the general fund. 

Councilwoman Alison Cormack and Councilman Greg Tanaka — council’s pro-development members — wanted to put the ordinance off to another day. Cormack said she was concerned about unintended consequences expressed in comments by Griego, Popp and others, and Tanaka said he wanted the city’s Planning and Transportation Commission to take a look at the implications.

Council approved a draft ordinance on Oct. 18, then the Architectural Review Board and the Parks and Recreation Commission reviewed the ordinance in April.

Five other council members voted to have the Planning and Transportation Commission evaluate the ordinance over the next year and suggest possible changes. 


  1. Poor Ms. Cormack doesn’t understand — or pretends not to understand — the difference between a big old tree and nothing or a tiny new planting. Her transparent pandering to developers is increasingly disgusting now that she’s decided not to run again.

  2. What nobody has mentioned is that trees are fuel for fires, and we have a year around fire season. We should be removing trees, not planting more trees. The least we could do is remove all the eucalyptus trees, each one is equivalent to a 55 gallon drum of gasoline. Remember the Coffee fire in Santa Rosa? Look around here and you will see the same dangerous situation, urban forest surrounding homes. Maybe someone will listen when one of our towns is nothing but cinders.

  3. So let me get this straight: Cormack co-chairs the city’s climate change efforts (S/CAP) and has been emphasizing how critical it is we all replace gas appliances with electric (at our expense). Yet whenever it comes to developers expressing a desire to pause on any tree protections, she goes along with them. Just like development of Catilleja involving an illegal underground garage with groundwater removal and massive amounts of carbon…also ok.

  4. How are people supposed to comply with SB9 if they can’t cut down trees to make room for the storage containers they want to put in their backyards and them rent them out for lots of cash and prizes?
    I guess “private property” is a foreign concept to these fools who are legends in their own minds.
    Kalifornia is circling the drain, elected officials like these don’t appreciate the fact that they are the reason why…

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