If a tree falls in Atherton, who pays to get it out of the road? That question was pondered by Atherton's City Council at a March 1 study session.
City Attorney Bill Connors had recommended the town continue a practice begun last November of charging the owners of fallen trees in roadways all the costs of clearing them.
But council members favored finding a way to revert to the town's previous practice. The town had cleared trees from roadways at public expense, leaving the homeowner to pay for removing the rest of the tree from the roadside. Reverting to that policy might require changing town laws, the council was told.
The issue came up in November, when City Manager George Rodericks told council members in his monthly report that "the law is quite clear that the Town cannot use public funds (staff time and resources) for private benefit even when the staff time and resources are for clearing the public roadway or drainage channel. If the source of the issue is private, the cost of Town work must be paid for by the private property owner."
Since then the town has been keeping track of such work and billing property owners.
"It's a public purpose to clear" a fallen tree if "emergency vehicles and private traffic can't get through," Councilman Rick DeGolia said, and the town should pay.
"I think the town needs to make sure the roads are open," Councilman Bill Widmer said. Clearing the Atherton channel prevents flooding, he said. "We ought to allow for that as well," he said.
Councilman Cary Wiest said if homeowners must pay for the work, they should also be able to choose who does it. "It's a timing issue. It's important to clear the roadway," he said.
Mayor Mike Lempres said, however, that in other parts of the country property owners must pay for things that they have no control over, such as clearing snow from public walkways in front of homes.
Council members asked to also get more information about the policies in other communities.