Almanac

News - August 24, 2011

Portola Valley: No leads in oak tree beheadings

by Dave Boyce

Violence was done to the tops of about 25 oak trees late last year along the 500 block of Portola Road in Portola Valley, a town known for its pride in its trees, and particularly its oak trees. The perpetrator left the branches lying at the base of the damaged trees and in the nearby field, a town landmark known as the Neely/Myers meadow.

Topping trees like this on open space land without permission is a misdemeanor, said Brian Malone, an area supervisor for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, in an interview. The open space district has police powers and owns the part of the meadow where the trees reside, but without leads as to who cut the trees, the district is not pursuing a prosecution, Mr. Malone said.

The district learned of the incident in a report dated Dec. 10, 2010, written by a ranger who participated in an investigation in response to someone who called the office about it on Nov. 30, Mr. Malone said.

"I did not see any leads," Mr. Malone said, reflecting on his visit to the site. The topping probably involved a boom truck and was probably done in broad daylight when such operations are inconspicuous, he said. It was unusual, he added, in that the cut branches were not chipped — a common practice of professional tree cutters.

The result is a massive hedge. The trees compensate for the damage on top by growing horizontally, further obscuring the view of Windy Hill and nearby hills for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers on Portola Road.

That particular view of the hills has been a matter of concern for the town's Conservation Committee, member Paul Heiple said. The committee has considered recommendations to the district on thinning these trees, all of which sprouted spontaneously, as well as getting rid of the non-native trees and allowing the remaining oaks to grow apart from each other, Mr. Heiple said. The current hedge-like pattern "wouldn't happen in nature," he said.

At the time of the topping incident, Mr. Heiple said the committee received a call from the open space district asking if members knew of the perpetrator, which they said they did not.

Mr. Malone said he visited every residence that might have a potential interest in seeing the tree heights lowered and interviewed someone on each visit. No one would admit to involvement, he said. He would not say whom he talked to.

The illegal topping operation will probably be done again when the new growth reaches its old height, Mr. Malone said. When that happens, after having spread the word about this incident, there may be more eyes and ears on the lookout, including those of district rangers. "Hopefully we can catch the person in the act," Mr. Malone said.

Mayor Ted Driscoll, when asked for a comment, said he learned of it recently in an overheard hallway conversation. "Obviously, I don't condone it," he said. "It's obviously a misdemeanor. It's obviously against the law to do that."

It's also a long-term problem, he added, and said he knows of a half dozen incidents in town when residents appear to have cut the tops off trees on someone else's land to improve the view from their own homes. Even one of the redwood groves at Town Center had this done to it surreptitiously about 18 years ago, Mr. Driscoll said.

"I'm sympathetic with the open space district," he said. "I'm unhappy when I see trees being treated like topiary."

"Treat us like you would another neighbor," Mr. Malone told the Almanac. "A reasonable person wouldn't go to a neighbor and chop down a tree for a view. Please treat open space as your neighbor and be respectful of the vegetation and land on the other side of the fence."

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