Almanac

News - July 27, 2011

County may come to rescue of 'Granny'

by Sandy Brundage

People plan estates for their parents, their spouses, their children and pets. Now some Menlo Park residents are being asked to plan an estate for Granny, a centuries-old oak tree, and the county may come to the rescue.

The choice between digging a tunnel to save the heritage oak — versus opting for the cheaper route of cutting it down — hinges on who's willing to take responsibility for maintaining the tree in perpetuity.

During a July 20 meeting between the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and a coalition of neighbors fighting to spare the tree, a new possibility emerged. According to county staff, Assistant County Manager David Holland wants to explore whether the county should take over Granny's care.

"It's not a made decision, obviously," said mediator Maya Perkins. An aide for Supervisor Rose Jacobs-Gibson, Ms. Perkins presented the idea on behalf of the assistant county manager, who was unable to attend the meeting. "He sounded pretty confident it could be arranged."

The county could allow limited public access and possibly create a community garden for the 1,100-by-80-foot parcel, she said. Both the SFPUC and the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors would need to sign off on the deal.

Earlier in July, the SFPUC asked a coalition of neighbors fighting to save Granny to form a nonprofit to handle maintenance, liability insurance, and public access should the commission decide to dig a $269,000 tunnel under the tree for a pipeline meant to carry water from the Hetch Hetchy as part of a $4.6 billion seismic improvement project.

The oak sits in the path of the pipeline, on a right-of-way owned by the SFPUC at 827 15th Ave. in North Fair. The commission initially planned to kill the tree in May on short notice, which riled Granny's neighbors.

Whether the county can afford to take over the right-of-way remains unanswered. San Mateo County recently asked Menlo Park to acquire Flood Park as budget cuts landed the park on the shortlist for closure.

Money aside, the idea achieved a rare moment of harmony between the SFPUC and the coalition. Both sides agreed it was a fine idea — in theory. "We would need assurance that the county wouldn't back out," SFPUC Project Manager Joe Ortiz said.

Charles Berkstrasser, whose home borders the easement, said county management was a more comfortable option. "Nonprofit organizations are inherently unstable," he noted.

The coalition hopes to speak with Mr. Holland this week and present a summary proposal to the SFPUC by July 27, according to spokesperson Mary Ann Mullen.

Mr. Holland was not immediately available for comment.

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