City seeks to regain its Tree City Status

The City of Gilroy is on aggressive pace to plant more than 100 trees per year in downtown neighborhoods, replacing many diseased or dead trees.

The City Council last week heard that 100 trees had been planted, with a goal of 500, in hopes of restoring Gilroy to a national “Tree City” designation.

To celebrate this renewed effort, the city is hosting a tree party on Arbor Day, Tuesday, April 17, at 5:30pm in Carriage Hills Park, 1701 Crest Hill Way.

Mayor Roland Velasco has officially declared April 17 Arbor Day, in Gilroy, and the Parks and Recreation Commission will plant five trees in Carriage Hills Park that have been donated by West Coast Arborists.

There is more to the tree story in Gilroy than just planting trees, and having a party.

The council is considering a new ordinance endorsed by the Planning Commission that would impose stiff fines on property owners who cut down trees in the city limits without city permission.

“Trees can reduce the erosion of our precious topsoil by wind and

water, cut heating and cooling costs, moderate the temperature, clean the air, produce life-giving oxygen, and provide habitat for wildlife,” the mayor said in his Arbor Day proclamation. “Trees are a renewable source, giving us paper, wood for our homes, fuel for our fires and countless other wood products—and trees in our city increase property values, enhance the economic vitality of business areas and beautify our community,” he said.

“Trees, where they are planted, are a source of joy and spiritual growth,” Velasco concluded. “I urge all citizens to plant trees to gladden the heart and promote the well-being of this and future generations.”

With that in mind, the draft ordinance is being rexamined by city staff.

Staff reported that currently, there are limited restrictions to protect the city’s tree resources, and there has been an increase in removal of significant trees.

“The proposed ordinance amendment would protect existing and future significant trees and tree communities throughout the city by establishing a process to regulate their removal,” the staff report stated.

The council is being asked to consider establishing an ordinance to recognize and protect significant trees, tree communities and heritage trees on private property by creating a new tree removal permit process.

Since 1988, staff has applied a Consolidated Landscape Policy during review of new development projects. The policy states that “all significant trees shall be maintained by the property owner until deemed insignificant by a public hearing or deemed a threat to the public health, safety and welfare by the Planning Division Manager.”

However there are no provisions in either the policy or the current Zoning Ordinance that regulate the removal of significant trees on private property when that private property is not part of a development project.

Two past incidents of removal of very significant oak trees illustrate the nature of the problem, according to the staff report.

In the first, a private property owner planning to develop a hillside lot in the Country Estates neighborhood removed a healthy oak tree estimate to be over 30 inches in diameter in order to expand the buildable area of the lot. The tree had been evaluated as part of an environmental analysis and identified for preservation as part of the approved Country Estates Planning subdivision approval.

Under the proposed ordinance, a tree removal permit and arborist report would have analyzed the tree’s health and presented potential options for preservation. The ordinance also includes possible findings to justify removal, including the creation of a disproportionate economic hardship to the property owner or limits the buildable area of the lot by 25 percent or more.

In addition, if removal is approved, the ordinance requires planting of replacement trees.

In the second more recent example, a massive oak tree located on the grounds of the Rebekah Children’s Home had multiple limbs connected with cables to improve the tree’s structural integrity. A large limb fell and a tree service, not a certified arborist, was called to evaluate the tree.  In the process, other cables were cut, causing more limbs to fall and the tree became unsafe, in the opinion of that tree service. As a result, the tree service proceeded to cut down the tree.

The proposed ordinance includes provisions for dealing with emergency situations caused by the hazardous condition of a protected tree. In such cases, the ordinance authorizes the property owner to take the minimal necessary actions to reduce or eliminate the immediate hazard, without first applying for a permit.

The condition of the tree would be documented prior to any such actions, the city would be notified within five working days, and a tree removal permit and arborist report would still be required.

Under the ordinance, replacement trees would have been required to be placed on the grounds of the Children’s Home.

The draft Protected Tree Removal Ordinance protects indigenous trees such as all types of oaks, California Bay, Big Leaf Maple, Madrone, California Sycamore, California Buckeye, and Alder, and defines a protected tree as any indigenous tree with a trunk at least 19 inches in circumference.

An approved tree removal permit would be required prior to any action to cut down, remove, poison or otherwise damage, kill, or destroy or cause to be removed a protected tree on private property.