Tree City trouble

Gilroy local David Lima holds out a reference card, that he keeps in his wallet, to gauge that the oak tree that was cut down is a coast live oak.

When Gilroy resident Dave Lima saw a tree-trimming crew hacking away at a 52-inch-wide oak on the picturesque foothills of northwest Gilroy Jan. 10, he believed he’d stumbled upon an illegal activity.
With chainsaws blaring in the background, Lima browsed the Internet on his cell phone looking for a City ordinance that prohibited cutting down old trees. Lima suspected the oak had been around for at least 150 years.
So he called around City Hall looking for answers, but to no avail.
By Jan. 12, the tree had been shorn to a stump to make way for a single-family home within the 95-lot residential development called Country Oaks Estates. And according to Gilroy Senior Planner Stan Ketchum, cutting down that oak on lot 31 of the development along the 8900 block of Tea Tree Way was in violation of Gilroy’s Consolidated Landscaping Policy.
An environmental document for the Country Oaks Estates development dated Oct. 2, 2000 shows City staff requires all construction activity – including landscaping – to respect a buffer zone around all trees at least 6 inches in diameter and more than 4.5 feet tall. The City also told the developer, southern California-based Gill Properties, to install temporary protective fencing around the canopy of all existing trees, reads the document. Neither of those requirements was adhered to within Lot 31, according to Ketchum.
“Those mitigations didn’t have a chance to go into play and it would appear the tree was cut down without appropriate City approvals,” Ketchum said.
A representative for the developer could not be reached for comment.
Gilroy’s Consolidated Landscaping Policy requires City staffers to determine if a tree on a private lot is considered “significant,” meaning it’s either a native species and has a diameter of more than 6 inches; or it’s important to the historical or visual aspect of Gilroy. If that’s the case, a developer must pay for the consultation of a certified arborist who provides advice on how to proceed.
That didn’t happen in this case, Ketchum confirmed.
Arborists’ reports are typically included in the architectural and site approval documents for developments and heavily influence whether a large native tree is recommended for removal.
The arborist must also determine if a standing tree could pose a threat to life and property if rot causes the limbs to topple down.
A tree deemed as “significant” can only be cut down legally if it is recommended for removal following a public hearing or it’s deemed a threat to public health and safety by an arborist.
Such was the case when a 36-diameter oak tree in a separate proposed development was slated for removal to make way for two new single-family residential lots within the Masoni III subdivision, sandwiched between Starling Drive and Santa Teresa Boulevard and just south of Babbs Creek. In this separate scenario, the developer – James Suner of the Gilroy-based James Group – went through all the necessary requirements for that to be legal, Ketchum said.
Suner said it was “unfortunate” the tree had to come down because it had been improperly pruned decades ago, according to a report by the Morgan Hill Tree Service.
“This one had particular problems and we had an arborist come look at it who said there’s no way to save it,” Suner said.
“In our city, there is no specific policy about what you do in terms of any kind of mitigation for the loss of such a tree,” Ketchum said. “There are in some cities – but there aren’t in Gilroy.”
Suner, however, volunteered to plant 16 well-established trees, already 20-feet-tall, in landscaped areas surrounding the subdivision.
Based on a review of City records, and confirmed by Ketchum, no arborist’s report was ever submitted for Lot 31 of the Country Oaks Estates development. This type of unauthorized removal is infrequent, Ketchum said, and since City staff were alerted to the violation following inquiries by the Dispatch, any potential penalties will be determined.
For 34 years, Gilroy has maintained its designation as a “Tree City USA,” meaning that it has maintained four separate standards to earn the designation through the Arbor Day Foundation. Some of these standards include an Arbor Day observance or proclamation and a tree care ordinance.
The ADF did not respond to requests to verify the City’s current status by press time.
“Any time that you have a historic tree or an important natural feature, in the interest of preservation, local history and from an environmental perspective, it makes sense to try and preserve that as best you can,” said Council Member Peter Leroe-Munoz. “We should be in a position where we’re not just reacting to those issues as they come up after the fact but rather really educating developers and members of the community to make sure we don’t suffer this kind of loss in the future.”
When Lima watched crews cutting the 52-inch-wide oak, he felt outrage and a profound sadness.
“This is the first time I’ve seen a perfect, live, healthy tree of that size just taken down,” he added. “My wife and I chose our home here because of the trees.”
Lima is calling on City officials to adopt a stricter policy – like some other California cities have – that protects historic trees and community members to speak up whenever they see an oak tree being removed.
In the City of Rocklin, 25 miles north of Sacramento, officials adopted a policy that eliminates certain development fees if an applicant chooses to preserve historic oak trees that are more than a century old. Rocklin also established an oak tree preservation fund that supports the reforestation, replanting of trees and accepts donations from the public for those purposes.
“I’ve noticed that when a home is about to be built on a lot, the (Gilroy) Planning Department requires that a poster is put up on the property advertising what’s going to happen and invites people to make input or voice objections,” Lima said. “If the same thing was required of any modification to the trees on any lot privately held by a developer, and if that was required in advance, I think that would be an improvement.”
Colleen Grzan, director of Animal Care at the Morgan Hill-based Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center, is concerned the displacement of the native animals that call mature oaks home is detrimental to their survival.
“Our wildlife’s habitat is being lost rapidly from encroaching development. (It) upsets the delicate balance of our ecosystem,” Grzan added. “Replacing ‘dangerous’ oak trees with other types of trees, especially non-native, decorative trees is just not the solution.”
The oak tree’s thick canopy provides songbirds protection from predators and the weather. But those canopies are slowly disappearing on private land, Grzan noted.
“Allowing development to encroach on the hills with any degree of rapidity is really sad,” Lima commented. “It’s probably inevitable with population growth but development is very difficult to be undone. It needs to be done carefully with a real long-term view.”