Neighbors ask court to save heritage oak
The neighbors of an oak tree called "Granny" headed to court Monday morning to ask a judge to issue a temporary restraining order that would keep the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's axes at bay.
The tree at 827 15th Ave. grows within a backyard easement controlled by the commission. Property owner Charles Berkstresser said the commission left a message on his door Friday evening, May 13, telling him the tree would be cut down Monday.
However, he says the commission has now backtracked, claiming it never intended to do so — but it remains mum about when, exactly, the tree will get cut down. He was expecting a visit from a commission representative Monday, in between the stream of tree supporters dropping by his backyard to take a look at the 65-foot tree that dwarfs his home.
Meanwhile, neighbor Mary Ann Mullen headed to court to plead the tree's case. The neighbors question whether the commission ever applied for a permit to remove the tree, a step required by the heritage oak tree ordinances of both San Mateo and San Francisco counties. It's not clear at the moment which county's ordinance would govern this particular oak, since it's located in one county while the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) belongs to another.
They're also wondering why the commission disregarded two options that would save the tree while still allowing pipes for the Hetch Hetchy water improvement project to be placed underground. A report by McClenahan Consulting, an arboriculturist company, suggested as alternatives either tunneling below the tree or relocating the water pipe either above the root zone or more than 10 feet away from the trunk.
SFPUC spokeswoman Maureen Barry said public agencies aren't required to get a permit before removing a heritage tree. And the alternatives to cutting down the tree presented two problems: either the limbs and possibly the entire tree would be compromised, or the roots would eventually grow over and corrode the new pipe.
"It's fair to say the project team is as disappointed as anyone that we weren't able to find an engineering solution here," she said. Ms. Barry stressed that the pipeline project is critical to ensuring a water supply if an earthquake strikes.
Mr. Berkstresser just wants to see documentation showing that cutting down the tree is the only viable choice. "If it is true, then they need to show us. Document, document, document, proof," he said, emphasizing the last word.
San Mateo County's heritage tree ordinance doesn't specifically state public agencies are exempt from the permit process. Representatives from both counties were not immediately available for comment. However, the San Mateo County Building and Planning Department confirmed that its director will meet with the SFPUC on Tuesday, May 17.
The Almanac has filed a public records act request with the commission for copies of all documentation related to the tree.
The tree, estimated to be about 300 years old, was one reason Mr. Berkstresser chose that home six years ago. "It's an asset to the entire community," he said. "Frankly, it's an asset of the state. This is old growth forest."
"Granny" won't die this week, according to Ms. Barry, because the SFPUC is waiting for contractor proposals. She said the commission will send out notices to update the community once the proposals are approved.
Meanwhile, the neighbors said they're putting together legal counsel.