Viewpoint - May 25, 2011

Editorial: Saving 'Granny': Citizens get commission's attention

We hope the commission in charge of the $4.6 billion seismic upgrade of the Hetch Hetchy water line that passes through North Fair Oaks will respond to an outpouring of concern from residents who are trying to save a heritage oak tree that is growing in the right-of-way.

Fears that the tree was in trouble came Friday, May 13, when the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission posted a notice on the doors of nearby residents saying the tree would be taken down on the following Monday, May 16. The notice gave tree supporters virtually no time to reach commission officials or to retain an attorney who might help them halt the plan to take the tree down. Although they may have seen plans that threatened the tree in early pipeline planning, neighbors had not been given any recent warning that the beautiful oak tree, estimated to be 300 years old, was even vulnerable.

The notice shocked resident Mary Ann Mullen, who quickly went to work, notifying friends and the news media, and posting a warning on the Almanac's Town Square forum calling for help to save the tree. She headlined her Town Square posting, "Heritage Oak at risk — urgent," which went out at 1:27 a.m. Saturday.

From there, the story took off, as neighbors and other supporters offered to help save the tree. One early focus that continues today is to retain an attorney who could help get a temporary restraining order, halting threats to the tree until all options could be considered. Questions also were raised about whether the SFPUC needed a permit from the county to remove a heritage tree.

The attention was not lost on the SFPUC, which got the message and has agreed to put a moratorium on taking the tree down until at least June 6 in order to study whether there is a way to route the line around or under the root structure of the tree.

These are the choices that should have been shared with neighbors before the decision was made to chop down the tree. It remains unclear why the commission chose to act so quickly, but the answer may come when the SFPUC responds to a public records act request filed by the Almanac for all documents related to the tree.

After the initial confusion, it appears that Ed Harrington, the commission's general manager, is sincerely trying to find a way to save the tree, known as "Granny" to neighbors.

In a letter to the county on May 18, he personally promised that a protective zone, known as an "avoidance area" at 827 15th Ave., has been established around the tree and that he has ordered the contractor to stop work within that boundary. The order will give the agency enough time to consider the cost of alternatives to taking down the tree.

The agency is also working with the county to determine if it must comply with the heritage tree ordinance. The SFPUC insists that as a public agency, it is not subject to the county regulations, a contention that remains to be sorted out.

Over the last 10 years, Ms. Mullen says, she has seen at least four species of owls roosting in the tree, as well as other raptors and animals. She claims the killing of the tree is unnecessary, and wrong.

We agree. If there is a reasonable way, the SFPUC should redesign its pipeline to go under or around the root structure of this magnificent oak tree. It may cost more, but the end result will be proof that a government agency can tailor its development plans to satisfy a neighborhood's concern, rather than knocking down a heritage tree that means so much to nearby residents and the birds and animals that make their home in or around it.


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