Arroyo Grande has long prided itself on being a “Tree City USA,” with thousands of street trees dotting the community. But how should the city continue to deal with street trees that were planted years ago seemingly without thought to the damage or safety risks they might cause in the future?
The Arroyo Grande City Council could reconsider its rules on trees after a discussion last week that focused on a request from a longtime resident to remove a coastal live oak tree, currently towering over part of his home, for health-related reasons.
The council unanimously denied the man’s request after coming to an agreeable solution, at least for now. But during the council’s discussion on Tuesday, Mayor Tony Ferrara noted that some trees in the city were planted improperly throughout Arroyo Grande and are now eating into public sidewalks and posing safety hazards.
“I’m concerned not only about this tree, but trees encroaching on sidewalks all over the city,” Ferrara said.
He asked the council to bring back the city’s tree ordinance for discussion at a later time. Later, in a phone interview, Ferrara said the city’s current approach has been far too concerned about precedence and diminishing its urban forest.
“I think what we need to do is establish criteria where if a tree is affecting infrastructure and we know it’s going to be recurring, then we shouldn’t be so hesitant to take that tree out and plant it the right way,” he said.
Qualifying as a Tree City
Arroyo Grande has been designated a “Tree City USA” by the nonprofit Arbor Day Foundation for 32 years.
As part of its annual application process, the city must show that it spends at least $2 per resident to care for its street trees. Arroyo Grande spent $4.50 per person in 2012, Public Works Director Geoff English said.
The city must also have a community tree ordinance. Arroyo Grande’s ordinance prohibits any trees from being removed without a permit from any commercial, mixed-use or multifamily residential areas. In addition, coastal live oaks, once they reach a certain size, can’t be removed from single-family residential areas without a permit.
The city takes a similarly strict approach toward its approximately 5,300 publicly maintained trees located along streets and in parks (another 2,000 or so trees are located on public open space).
If a street tree is causing sidewalk damage, for example, city staff would fix the sidewalk and only remove the tree if they believe the damage would occur again within five years, City Manager Steve Adams said.
English said a liquid amber tree was recently removed from Orchard Street because its roots were causing significant damage to the sidewalk and growing into a property owner’s yard. About a year ago the city had to fix a water line break in the center of the road on South Elm Street caused by the roots of a magnolia tree that had wrapped around the pipe. That tree was not removed.
“It’s a typical challenge for public agencies — desiring to have the benefit of street trees and balancing that against negative impacts of the trees on your infrastructure, above and below ground,” English said.
Trees can be removed if they are dead or in poor health without a chance of recovering; damaging private or public property; preventing construction or improvements on the property; or presenting a risk to public health and safety.
The council concluded, as did the city’s parks and recreation commission, that an oak tree at 465 Tanner Lane did not meet those requirements. The homeowner, Steven Andrews, appealed the parks commission’s decision to the City Council.
The oak tree was planted at least 50 years ago and now spans over a sidewalk as well as part of Andrews’ home. Andrews said the tree rains down with debris and causes a severe allergic reaction. Andrews, who said he has a weakened respiratory system, said he becomes extremely ill about three times a year.
“It’s a desperate situation for me,” he told the council.
Councilman Joe Costello was the only council member inclined to support Andrews’ appeal — though he asked whether the homeowner could provide documentation from his doctor supporting his health claims.
The other council members sympathized with his situation but expressed concern that it would set a precedent for future tree removal requests.
“If we grant this appeal, we've opened up the floodgates for a huge round of future appeals,” Councilman Tim Brown said.
Instead, they decided Andrews should have the tree trimmed back as far as possible to see if his health improves. If it does not, Andrews was directed to bring his appeal back to the council.
But in the meantime, city staff will come back to the council for direction on its tree rules within a month or two. The city’s Parks and Recreation Commission would also consider any changes.