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Residents take up tree causes with Parks panel

By Matt Lorenz Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday June 06, 2001

Twenty or so residents met in one of the North Berkeley Senior Center’s more cozy, upper rooms Monday evening to share their views with the Parks and Recreation Commission about two ordinances intended to protect trees within the city.  

The first ordinance proposes limits on whether or not Live Oaks can be removed. A property owner who wants to remove a Live Oak with a diameter of 6 inches or more would have to get city approval. The approval would be granted if the tree presents a danger or infringes on a neighboring property.  

The second ordinance aims to protect all other trees of a 10-inch diameter or more. 

Juliet Lamont, a Berkeley resident with a doctorate in environmental planning, asked the commission for greater protection than is outlined in the draft ordinance. 

“A broader definition of the removal of oaks needs to be included in the ordinance as oaks are extremely sensitive to small changes in environment and conditions,” Lamont said. “The word ‘alter’ should be added to the ordinance prohibition in order to provide full protection. And this is because oaks can literally be killed by doing things like encroaching on the drift line. Relocating a mature oak is virtually impossible to do successfully.”  

Lamont and resident Fran Segal also expressed concern over the possibility that certain property owners might use one type of permit to bypass another.  

For example, a property owner might obtain a use permit for a driveway and clear the space of the driveway without regard to tree ordinances.  

Parks Director Lisa Caronna sought to assuage this concern by explaining that, though the ways in which tree ordinances will work along side zoning ordinances are “yet to be developed.” They will be developed, she said.  

“It’s just that (this question will) have to go through a separate procedure through the Planning Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board as to what the criteria is when they weigh trees against public project bids, housing projects, shelter or school,” Caronna said.  

Charles Smith asked that the city develop some formal procedures to deal with hazardous trees.  

“We turned in a petition to have some horrendous, terrible eucalyptus trees in Indian Rock Park taken down and really worked on, and the City Council treated it like a letter to the council. The staff ignored it,” Smith said. (The city is currently operating under a temporary tree-cutting moratorium.) 

“I personally have been working to get a statewide, hazardous tree law. The City of Oakland has one; Berkeley doesn’t have one.”  

Other residents, like Harvey Sherback, urged the commission to pay more attention to the beauty lost to the city when trees are uprooted. 

“I’d like to talk about trees,” Sherback said.  

“North Shattuck Avenue used to have beautiful bottle-brush trees with beautiful flowers. They needed a little maintenance so (the city) took them all out, and now they put in what they call ‘low-maintenance, non-flowering trees,’” Sherback said. “It’s like a scam.” 

Tom Ashkenas came to speak on behalf of the rights of property owners. 

“I’m a developer, a landlord and all that nasty stuff,” Ashkenas said. “I think it’s outrageous that you have a law that property owners can’t decide what kind of trees they want for themselves. I don’t understand it. 

“I personally put in a number of fruit trees – I happen to like fruit trees – and the only thing to fall on my property, since I’ve owned it since 1971, are two oak trees,” Ashkenas said. “I don’t understand why property owners can’t just decide which trees they want. They’re not evil people. They love trees too. They like diversity.” 

Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Carol Thornton received applause when she questioned the second ordinance, which addresses all species of trees. The ordinance imposes tree-protection standards on dwellings with three or more units, but not on those with fewer than three units.  

“I feel like it is discriminatory to have it include only buildings with units of three or more. It should apply to everybody,” Thornton said.  

After the hearing, Berkeley City Councilmember Dona Spring spoke about a similar kind of discrimination that might arise from the tree ordinances.  

Resdients might need an arborist if, for example, they wanted to challenge their landlords’ decision to uproot a tree and low income people would not be able to do so. 

“This is really geared for wealthier individuals who have money to pay to get to court – money and time. I would think we should make a City of Berkeley parks mini-grant, which is $5,000, available so that there is money for low-income people to be able to pay arborists,” Spring said. 

A parks mini-grant would assist tenants in low-income areas, Spring said, “so that it’s not just something that more wealthy areas of town will be able to do. Really where we need it the most is in the flatlands where regular tenants do not have the means to pay for arborists.” 

During the first 30 minutes of the next Parks Commission meeting, Monday, June 11 at 5 p.m., the public will again have the opportunity to contribute to the discussion of the draft tree ordinances. It will be held at the Corporation Yard, 1326 Allston Way.