Protecting the canopy

Large trees in Vallemar are candidates for heritage tree designation. A coalition of groups in Pacifica are giving the existing ordinance another look. Adam Pardee / Tribune

Three groups took on the task of evaluating the existing heritage tree ordinance in a recent study session that could lead to revisions of tree protections in Pacifica.

In Pacifica, a heritage tree is defined as any other than eucalyptus that have a trunk with a circumference of 50 inches, approximately 16 inches or more in diameter and measuring more than 24 inches above the natural grade or a tree or grove of trees. Such trees are designated by the City Council to be of special historical, environmental, or aesthetic value.

The Planning Commission, Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission and the Beautification Advisory Committee as well are residents provided feedback to a presentation by the city’s consultant, Davey Resources Group on Sept. 28. The next step will be to present the compiled comments to City Council, said Sam Bautista, deputy director of public works.

“There is an important safety need to remove trees and the city’s ordinance needs to be updated to reflect the current state of the urban forest,” Bautista said.

Pacifica passed its first heritage tree ordinance in 1984, but there have been revisions since then. The current ordinance has been in effect since Jan. 10, 1990. In 1995, City Council addressed potential negative outcomes from logging operations in the city. Exemptions to the logging operations for necessary removals with a city permit were established in 1999. In 2006, requirements for the maintenance and preservation of city trees were adopted.

The city contracted with Davey Resource Group to work on part one of a work plan to review and update the heritage tree ordinance and the maintenance and preservation of city trees provisions. The city does not have an urban forest management plan, which would help it with grants to fund tree inventories or urban reforestation, Bautista said.

Two work plans will eventually develop an urban forest management plan, ordinance revisions, process reviews and public engagement. Work plan 1 reviews private tree removal processes and reviews the city’s street maintenance process. Staff heard that the heritage removal process is difficult to navigate for both staff and the applicant. It requires the coordination of two departments. DRG will propose recommendations to streamline and improve the process.

Work plan part 2 starts a tree inventory, establishes a sustainable urban forest management plan, provides an urban forest cost benefit analysis, and implements a software program to assist with tree management. North County Fire Authority, the Open Space and Parkland Advisory Committee and the Emergency Preparedness and Safety Commission would be involved. This work plan is tentatively slated for the last half of fiscal year 2021-22.

The city seeks to reserve the definition for native and other tree species that are important to the community and remove nuisance trees from the definition, Bautista said. The city has limited funds for trimming and maintaining trees and DRG would help develop cost effective measures.

Staff and DRG recommend considering the development of a definition for “protected tree” thatcould be defined as large trees with a minimum trunk circumference on private property contributing to canopy cover.

Staff recommends renaming the ordinance “tree preservation” to encompass both protected and heritage trees. Heritage trees should be those of native species, have historical value, a specimen tree of any species, older trees that contribute to wildlife habitat or be visibly prominent in the community and be in a condition that the tree can be maintained in the landscape so as not to create an unreasonable risk.

The consultant asked participants three questions. Should the title of the ordinance be revised to “tree preservation?” Should there be an additional definition for a “protected tree?” Should the definition of “heritage tree” be more specifically defined?

The second question asked about changing the way heritage trees are measured. DRG said the city’s current methodology is inconsistent with the industry standard, which is to measure the tree diameter at 54 inches above natural grade. Staff recommends changing the ordinance to reflect the industry standard.

The ordinance prohibits cutting down, substantially trimming, removing or moving a heritage tree or conducting construction activities within a dripline growing on private and public process. The city heard that it is not clear when a permit is required. DRG recommended it be refined for clarity.

Staff and DRG recommend revising notification processes for pending tree removal applications. Right now, a notice is posted on the tree and people adjacent to the tree are notified.

Pacifica’s ordinance requires a tree protection plan for any development proposal. Non-conformance can lead to a stop work order and requirements for mitigation. Tree protection plans are not required for trees that are not directly affected by construction but are within the site.

DRG recommends using the industry-accepted method to identify the area for a tree protection zone, where the diameter of the trunk is multiplied by 1.5 feet, which is then used to determine the tree protection area radius. This method expands the area of protection and can be used to protect trees not located on a construction site. The group was asked, Should the city adopt an industry standard for the preparation of tree protection plans? All agreed to that.

Pacifica has a fine of $1,000 for non-conformance of the ordinance, said DRG. Anecdotal accounts cite some violators have been asked to pay the fine after the tree has been removed or damaged beyond repair. The current penalty, the maximum under state law, does not adequately compensate for the loss of benefits provided by mature trees. DRG recommends reviewing ways to de-incentivize tree removals.

The group was also asked if the city should require residents obtain a permit to plant a tree in the public right-of-way? All said ‘yes.’

The logging ordinance of 1995 bans all logging operations as defined as the removal or destruction of 20 or more trees within one year under the same ownership. In 1999, it was adopted to allow for logging operations with a city permit if it was necessary for the safety of life or property or operations. Staff and DRG recommend considering reducing redundant code in this section.

Should staff review reducing redundant code? Many said ‘yes’ but others wanted to make sure the removal of 19-20 trees was protected somewhere in the ordinance.

Paul Totah, a member of Tree City Pacifica, noted the group is celebrating its third Arbor Day in November.

“Keep Pacifica verdant. It will assist in the fight against climate change and provide habitat for wildlife. We also hope you will add a canopy goal of 30 percent,” he said.

Jane Northrop has covered Pacifica for the Pacifica Tribune since 1996. She has won first place John Swett Awards from the California Teachers Association for her coverage of education.

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