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OP-ED: In the middle of big trees
July 22, 2013, 05:00 AM By Sue Lempert

Dennis Pawl, San Mateo’s arborist, loves his job but the big challenge is diplomatically turning down a citizen’s request to chop down a heritage tree. Sometimes it’s a battle between neighbors — some insist the trees must stay and some want them removed.

San Mateo’s heritage tree ordinance outlines the conditions under which a tree can be removed. Usually it’s a health and safety issue — the tree is sick and in danger of falling. Or there are no reasonable alternatives to removal when roots are destroying a sidewalk or garage way. This was the case in the recent controversy over removal of trees in the Glazenwood neighborhood. A resident wanted heritage trees removed to enable construction of a new driveway and garage. The city decided there was no way to mitigate the problem unless the home owners paid an exorbitant amount of money for a fix. Neighbors who depended on the trees for shade and neighborhood ambiance were bitter.


Pawl receives about 200 requests a year for removal of heritage trees. About half of these are denied unless the tree is a hazard, is dying or causing damage which can’t be reasonably mitigated. But those reasons can be interpreted differently depending on one’s point of view. Occasionally, the city asks an outside expert for an opinion. The expert cannot be a tree company which is in the business of removing trees. Those requesting a removal permit must place a $350 deposit with the city for each tree. If the permit is granted but they do not plant a 24-inch box tree replacement, the city keeps the deposit and it goes into a tree planting fund.

According to the city’s ordinance, a heritage tree includes oak, bay, redwood, cedar and buckeye; has a trunk diameter of 10 inches measured at four feet above the ground. Or it is any tree with a trunk diameter of 16 inches or more measured at 4 feet above ground level. Permits are required to work on these trees. It is unlawful for anyone to remove or prune more than one quarter of the crown or existing foliage of a heritage tree, or more than one third of the root system without first obtaining a permit.

“The City of San Mateo has adopted the Heritage Tree Ordinance because the citizens of San Mateo realize that trees, especially Heritage Trees, are valuable to both individual properties and the entire community. It is the intent of the ordinance to pursue other methods of solving tree related problems, using proven arboricultural techniques, other than removing valuable trees unless absolutely necessary.”

One of those techniques is ramping over roots.

Pawl said if the tree drops too much stuff, that’s not a reason for removal. But home owners with heritage trees on their property must maintain the tree in proper fashion which includes routine pruning. When planting new trees, some don’t realize how fast some of them grow. Pawl said the key is to plant the right tree in the right place.


The city of San Mateo has approximately 24,000 trees located within the public right-of-way along city streets, in street medians and within parks and city facilities.

Approximately 39 percent of these trees are large enough in trunk diameter to be heritage trees. They include 400 coast redwoods, most of them in city parks, around city facilities (including the new main library) and within street medians. Central Park has 51; Beresford 93. The city also has a street master plan to determine what should be planted in the public right-of-way along city streets.


Two of the oldest neighborhoods in San Mateo, Baywood and San Mateo Park, host most of the city’s big trees. John Parrott, while living on his spacious 377-acre Baywood estate (1829-1917), supplemented the estate’s native bay and oak trees with redwood, eucalyptus, acacias, magnolias, sycamores, chestnut, palm, spruce and pine trees. In 1896, when San Mateo Park was founded, George Howard and John McLaren planned 69 landscaped medians, with Northern California oaks and redwoods and East Coast elms, maples and poplars. Some neighborhoods don’t have enough trees. North Central, for example, is complaining about the 115 trees Caltrain plans to remove to repair four aging bridges. Seventy of these are heritage trees.


Pawl has been with the city for 28-and-a-half years. He hails from the Midwest where he received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in urban forestry. He worked for a private tree company for a while but always wanted to be a city arborist. Despite the challenges, he loves looking after San Mateo’s trees, both big and small.

Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at



Tags: trees, heritage, mateo, removal, right, which,

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