If a tree falls on an Atherton road, who pays to move it?


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.


10 people like this
Posted by Frustrated
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 7, 2017 at 12:32 pm

what they did not discuss is who pays for tree clearing when that tree is on land owned by the town. many lindenwood residents are not aware that typically the town owns all of the land extending out from the edge of the asphalt approx. 16' towards the homeowner's property. if a tree located in that 16' zone falls (regardless of whether or not it falls into the street) the expense should be borne by the town not the homeowner.
The town's current strategy is to tell the homeowner they must immediately clear the tree from the road or the town will handle it and bill them for the service- even if the tree is located in that 16' strip of land.
Not fair in my book!

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Posted by Ah but wait
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 7, 2017 at 2:09 pm


If you look carefully at the Towns laws you will find the frontage area between the property line and the edge of street pavement is the responsibility of the adjoining property owner to maintain - to include any trees. The Town has standards to which it must be maintained.

I have found that this is similar to other communities where the property owner is technically and liability-wise responsible for the sidewalk along their frontage - much to their surprise at times.

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Posted by frustrated
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 7, 2017 at 4:29 pm

@ ah but wait
I know two lindenwood residents who initially paid for the removal of a fallen tree which was on town land (area between asphalt and property line) and subsequently got the town to reimburse them. i have never seen the section of the code which talks about who's responsible for the easement area, but i would love to check it out.

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Posted by Ah but wait
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 7, 2017 at 5:10 pm


Here are two sections to read through in their entirety.

Sections 8.20 and 12.06.

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Posted by csafai
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 7, 2017 at 8:41 pm

A question for Frustrator:
The easement from the edge of the road is 6' or 16'? Meanwhile thank you for your posting.

2 people like this
Posted by frustrated
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 8, 2017 at 11:25 am

@ah but wait
wow! thank you for the references! i had no clue it was legal for a government agency to obligate someone to maintain city-owned land. Might they also be legally entitled to force me to maintain my neighbor's strip or perhaps maintain the park?
there is no reference to a right of way or easement in any lindenwood legal descriptions so we homeowners have no legal rights to this land but yet we are forced to maintain this land?! Cities make up their own code rules but that does not mean those codes are legal. Code sections get shot down as illegal all the time. Since i am not a real estate attorney i have no clue whether or not 12.06 would hold up under legal scrutiny. Since it is possible to twist the town's arm to reimburse for fallen trees in the easement strip, my guess is they have some idea as to the code's legality.

many parts of lindenwood have a 16' strip of land in front of the lot. There are survey markers buried in various locations but the easiest way to tell how deep your strip is by looing at where your neighbors have erected a fence or wall. This is the lot boundary.

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Posted by Ah but wait
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 8, 2017 at 12:54 pm


I have not had this discussion with Atherton, but I own property in another community with the same regulatory framework. The way it was explained to me was that many of the City's streets are merely permanently dedicated easements for right-of-way. The underlying property owner remains the adjoining property owner usually to the centerline of the roadway. That property owner remains responsible for the lot frontage between the edge of their developable parcel to the edge of pavement. That requirement comes from many different sources to include the sections I mentioned above in Atherton's code. The bigger irritation comes in the case of sidewalks where the City has placed sidewalks or pathways along the frontage area of someone's property. That sidewalk is the responsibility of the adjoining property owner - even the liability. State of California Streets and Highways Code - Web Link

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