Thursday, June 12, 2014

#164 / Trees On Trial: The Verdict

As I alerted those who listen to the KUSP Land Use Report, the tree shown on the right went on "trial" before the Santa Cruz City Council on June 10, 2014. A video recording of the City Council deliberations is available by clicking this link (Agenda Item #12).

The City of Santa Cruz has a "Heritage Tree Ordinance." I have commented earlier on this ordinance in this Two Worlds blog.

Most people would probably think, based on the name of the ordinance, that the City's ordinance is designed to protect trees like the one shown. 

In fact, "heritage" trees don't really get any practical protection from the City of Santa Cruz. The City's ordinance imposes a bureaucratic procedure that property owners have to go through, before cutting down a "heritage" tree, but almost every application gets City approval.

Usually, it is a member of the City staff who grants approval for property owners to cut down heritage trees. The decisions are made on an administrative basis, without any need to consult with the elected members of the Santa Cruz City Council. Things were a little bit different in the case of the tree shown here, because the City's arborist actually came down on the side of the tree, pointing out that it was not necessary to kill the tree in order to cure the problems that the tree is causing. Those problems include some pavement and sidewalk buckling and interference with some nearby plumbing.

If the City really wanted to protect its heritage trees, the City's ordinance would have to be clear that heritage trees can't be cut down "unless ......" (with the City then providing a list of very specific and limited circumstances in which such magnificent trees could be removed). In other words, the City would have to shift the burden of proof to give the benefit of the doubt to the tree, instead of to the property owner.

Under current practice, if the tree proves an inconvenience to a property owner, for whatever reason, the City routinely allows the tree to be cut, no matter how much of a "heritage tree" it is. Usually (but not always), the approval to cut a heritage tree is granted in connection with a property owner's desire to build something new. Instead of requiring the property owner to design around the tree, the City just imposes the death sentence.

In this case, the fact that the arborist was on the side of the tree didn't make any difference. Neither did many communications from members of the public who think that the City's policy ought to be to preserve heritage trees, whenever possible. As previously noted, the "heritage" tree name notwithstanding, when a property owner wants to kill a heritage tree, the answer will almost always be "Yes."

Here's the roll call vote on the tree shown above, during that "trial" held on Tuesday of this week:

To kill the tree:
Mayor Lynn Robinson
Council Member Hilary Bryant
Council Member Cynthia Mathews
Council Member Pamela Comstock
Council Member David Terrazas
To save the tree:  
Vice Mayor Don Lane
Council Member Micah Posner

I think that killing that tree was the wrong result.

I don't even think it got a fair trial.

Image Credit:
Gary A. Patton


  1. The non-human life of our bioregion is the common heritage of all who live here. Trees, whether "heritage" or not, do not belong to landowners, not even to the City Council or Board of Supervisors. The living trees belong to themselves and are the responsibility of all residents.

    Mature trees are not separable property: you can't take them with you when you move somewhere else. Cutting down and killing a mature tree is an act of violence against the commons, and insult to all life who share our common heritage.

    City government has no right to allow and regulate the reduction of the commons represented by killing of its trees.

  2. Well, here is where that "Two Worlds" concept comes into play. In terms of the World of Nature that ultimately contains and sustains all living things, I am in agreement with you. But in the "Human" World, the world that we create ourselves, by the rules and laws that we establish, the elements of our Natural World, like the trees, become subservient to what we decide. And we have decided that trees DO belong to the "owners" of the properties on which they grow. We could have a different rule, and protect them, but our "politically created" reality, in fact, is the immediate reality in which we live, and that reality supersedes and displaces the Natural World, upon which we ultimately depend.


Thanks for your comment!