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Is Mountain View losing its trees?

New city data still leaves question up in the air

Is Mountain View losing trees from breakneck development, or is the town planting enough younger trees to replenish them? It's sort of like asking if a cup is half empty or half full -- it depends on who you ask.

A new draft report by the city's Forestry Division finds that nearly 2,400 trees have been chopped down across town over the last three years. On the bright side, city arborists report that they are replanting 60 percent more new trees and saplings compared to what's been removed.

Yet tree advocates in Mountain View remain skeptical. Not all trees are equal, said Katherine Naegele, an arborist with the Mountain View Tree nonprofit who previously served on the city's Urban Forestry Board.

While a higher tree count might seem like proof of success, it could also mean that a developer ripped out healthy mature trees only to be replace them with saplings from the nursery, she said. After winning their approvals, many developers often pick non-native trees and then plant them too closely together or in spaces that can't support their roots, she said. These trees will end up dying, but the city's tree count will still portray it as a net increase, she said.

"It might seem like we're getting this lush new tree cover, but actually we're just counting the number of trunks to satisfy the city's policies," Naegele said. "I would rather see someone plant two coast live oaks rather than 100 myrtles."

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The city's policies for protecting heritage trees have come under new scrutiny in recent days following a community outcry against plans to take down a grove of redwoods off Sierra Avenue. City officials ultimately denied permits to remove the trees, yet the episode still left many residents with the feeling that the city has a "double standard" for which trees are protected. The city does have two different tracks for granting these permits, but that split process confuses many residents, said Parks & Recreation Commissioner Paul Hepfer.

For a basic tree removal -- such as a homeowner seeking to chop down a tree -- that goes to the city's Urban Forestry Division under the Community Services Department. If a project decision is appealed, then it goes before the Parks & Recreation Commission for a public hearing. Since July 2016, the Forestry Division has logged requests to remove about 430 trees, about half of which were approved.

The majority of tree removals are attached to development projects. When trees need to be removed as part of a larger project -- say, to construct a new office building -- that decision goes to the city planning division instead. Heritage tree removals are typically packaged into the larger set of building permits approved either by city staff or the City Council. In massive projects, advocates say the fate of the trees is often given secondary treatment when compared to parking, transportation and other considerations. To take one example, 247 trees were removed as part of a LinkedIn office project at 700 E. Middlefield Road, and the developer was required to replant only 53 trees.

The Voice filed a public records request with the city asking for totals of how many trees were removed throughout the city based on development dating back to 2010. City officials identified more than 200 projects that involved tree removals, but they could not provide specific numbers or details on most of those projects except by going through individual development approvals by hand. The city began tabulating trees removals from development starting in 2015, according to Forestry Division officials. A data map of the tree removals can be found here.

Given the brisk pace of development, it seems reasonable to be concerned that matures trees are being treated as an afterthought, Hepfer said.

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"I don't think every heritage tree needs to remain just because it's a heritage tree, but it's important to maintain a tree canopy," he said. "We're at a point right now where I'm afraid because of how fast development is being approved. What we lose, we might not get that back."

It is tricky to say whether the city's tree canopy is dwindling, said Brady Ruebusch, a city analyst involved in the heritage tree program. Every few years, a city team gleans satellite imagery to get a bird's-eye view of the citywide tree canopy, which is available online. Eventually, city officials should be able to determine spots where tree coverage is depleted, Ruebusch said.

The city has set a goal to increase its total tree canopy by about a third, or about 11,000 trees, by 2020. He believes that is achievable, but he acknowledged that trees take a long time to fully grow, so gauging success might take a while.

"We might not know the potential of all of this for 10 to 15 years," he said.

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Is Mountain View losing its trees?

New city data still leaves question up in the air

by Mark Noack / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Sun, Jul 1, 2018, 2:16 pm

Is Mountain View losing trees from breakneck development, or is the town planting enough younger trees to replenish them? It's sort of like asking if a cup is half empty or half full -- it depends on who you ask.

A new draft report by the city's Forestry Division finds that nearly 2,400 trees have been chopped down across town over the last three years. On the bright side, city arborists report that they are replanting 60 percent more new trees and saplings compared to what's been removed.

Yet tree advocates in Mountain View remain skeptical. Not all trees are equal, said Katherine Naegele, an arborist with the Mountain View Tree nonprofit who previously served on the city's Urban Forestry Board.

While a higher tree count might seem like proof of success, it could also mean that a developer ripped out healthy mature trees only to be replace them with saplings from the nursery, she said. After winning their approvals, many developers often pick non-native trees and then plant them too closely together or in spaces that can't support their roots, she said. These trees will end up dying, but the city's tree count will still portray it as a net increase, she said.

"It might seem like we're getting this lush new tree cover, but actually we're just counting the number of trunks to satisfy the city's policies," Naegele said. "I would rather see someone plant two coast live oaks rather than 100 myrtles."

The city's policies for protecting heritage trees have come under new scrutiny in recent days following a community outcry against plans to take down a grove of redwoods off Sierra Avenue. City officials ultimately denied permits to remove the trees, yet the episode still left many residents with the feeling that the city has a "double standard" for which trees are protected. The city does have two different tracks for granting these permits, but that split process confuses many residents, said Parks & Recreation Commissioner Paul Hepfer.

For a basic tree removal -- such as a homeowner seeking to chop down a tree -- that goes to the city's Urban Forestry Division under the Community Services Department. If a project decision is appealed, then it goes before the Parks & Recreation Commission for a public hearing. Since July 2016, the Forestry Division has logged requests to remove about 430 trees, about half of which were approved.

The majority of tree removals are attached to development projects. When trees need to be removed as part of a larger project -- say, to construct a new office building -- that decision goes to the city planning division instead. Heritage tree removals are typically packaged into the larger set of building permits approved either by city staff or the City Council. In massive projects, advocates say the fate of the trees is often given secondary treatment when compared to parking, transportation and other considerations. To take one example, 247 trees were removed as part of a LinkedIn office project at 700 E. Middlefield Road, and the developer was required to replant only 53 trees.

The Voice filed a public records request with the city asking for totals of how many trees were removed throughout the city based on development dating back to 2010. City officials identified more than 200 projects that involved tree removals, but they could not provide specific numbers or details on most of those projects except by going through individual development approvals by hand. The city began tabulating trees removals from development starting in 2015, according to Forestry Division officials. A data map of the tree removals can be found here.

Given the brisk pace of development, it seems reasonable to be concerned that matures trees are being treated as an afterthought, Hepfer said.

"I don't think every heritage tree needs to remain just because it's a heritage tree, but it's important to maintain a tree canopy," he said. "We're at a point right now where I'm afraid because of how fast development is being approved. What we lose, we might not get that back."

It is tricky to say whether the city's tree canopy is dwindling, said Brady Ruebusch, a city analyst involved in the heritage tree program. Every few years, a city team gleans satellite imagery to get a bird's-eye view of the citywide tree canopy, which is available online. Eventually, city officials should be able to determine spots where tree coverage is depleted, Ruebusch said.

The city has set a goal to increase its total tree canopy by about a third, or about 11,000 trees, by 2020. He believes that is achievable, but he acknowledged that trees take a long time to fully grow, so gauging success might take a while.

"We might not know the potential of all of this for 10 to 15 years," he said.

Comments

John
Monta Loma
on Jul 1, 2018 at 3:13 pm
John, Monta Loma
on Jul 1, 2018 at 3:13 pm

The answer is yes Mountain View is losing its trees. We don’t need a study or data to tell us what our eyes see.
Runaway development money trumps the environment.


Steven Nelson
Registered user
Cuesta Park
on Jul 1, 2018 at 4:31 pm
Steven Nelson, Cuesta Park
Registered user
on Jul 1, 2018 at 4:31 pm

It is extremely easy for any concerned individual to get 'old Google Maps' satellite images, and compare a decade ago to recently. A reasonable programmer could compare green trees coverage - from the satellite images. Maybe just do a 'green blob' area subtract for each 'green blob' from a decade ago. Giant Old 'green blobs' compute are covering more area than Small Young 'green blobs'. Hey - can't a Foothills College Geographic Information Systems wiz student group do this for a project?

Thank you Voice / Mark for trying to get the public data out of the City! Usually, when this effort shows such 'lack of policy-making data' (like bike-pedestrian collisions) our City steps up and improves their data processes.

Parks & Recreation Commission - your partial responsibility for (tree) oversight. Please Step Up!


Steven Nelson
Registered user
Cuesta Park
on Jul 1, 2018 at 4:41 pm
Steven Nelson, Cuesta Park
Registered user
on Jul 1, 2018 at 4:41 pm

or - study article on recent Earth imaging science, "Science" AAAS

Web Link


someone concerned
Rengstorff Park
on Jul 1, 2018 at 7:16 pm
someone concerned, Rengstorff Park
on Jul 1, 2018 at 7:16 pm

The apartment complex that I live in Montecito Ave has around 25 some trees and they are as old as the complex is which is more than 25 years and all the trees are going to be removed in the next few nmonths because it is going to be developed into densely packed new homes just how all the recently developed new homes look in Mountain view, multi storey-ed and densely packed. I dont think these trees are going to be replaced anywhere else in Mountain View with new trees and that is the true fact. The single home with huge backyward adjacent to my complex had many many trees has been cut down and replaced with pretty much wooden strctures now and I don't think those trees are replaced and there won't be space either in the new structure. Unfortunately, nothing short of a humongous catastrophic earthquake will change our greedy and arrogant behavior towards mother nature. There was a time , people had some awareness but now, its all greed. Trust me , the people who are going to occupy these new homes, the people in the city council and the people working for the companies in this area are all fake arrogant selfish liberals with no cocnern for the local environment. enough of my rant.


YIMBY
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2018 at 7:20 pm
YIMBY, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2018 at 7:20 pm

@someone concerned

Except that by building a tall and dense structure we're preventing sprawl from tearing down even more trees. I do support an initiative to plant trees elsewhere though for whatever is torn down.


JR
Shoreline West
on Jul 2, 2018 at 8:47 am
JR, Shoreline West
on Jul 2, 2018 at 8:47 am

I don't understand the two different committees thing, why are there separate processes?


Lots of new street trees
Cuesta Park
on Jul 2, 2018 at 10:15 am
Lots of new street trees, Cuesta Park
on Jul 2, 2018 at 10:15 am

I live in the Cuesta park area and i see many new street trees in peoples yards, aging from I would guess 1-5 years of age. I also see many original street trees aging out and dying. In another 10 years those new trees will be shading the streets just like the old ones did 20-30 years ago.


MyOpinion
Registered user
Sylvan Park
on Jul 2, 2018 at 3:18 pm
MyOpinion, Sylvan Park
Registered user
on Jul 2, 2018 at 3:18 pm

Yes, the canopy is definitely shrinking, unlike 'leafy Los Altos'. The high density Prometheus-type complexes are building out to the sidewalks, clearing trees all in the interest of luxury rentals, calling these places 'homes' is a misnomer. It's transient housing for highly paid tech workers who will live there and move on to a real community when they want to settle down. The canopy is shrinking along with the quality of life in Mountain View, but high density is the priority for our current council, keep that in mind with upcoming elections. Developers and Tech own Mountain View, not the residents.


Thida Cornes
Registered user
Shoreline West
on Jul 2, 2018 at 3:20 pm
Thida Cornes, Shoreline West
Registered user
on Jul 2, 2018 at 3:20 pm

Mark, thanks for highlighting this issue.

@JR there have been two separate processes since the Heritage Tree Ordinance was created years ago. When I was on the Parks & Rec Commission, we asked City Council if we could review the Ordinance with a view towards combining the two and treating all heritage trees the same, but City Council narrowed our scope to just updating the signage for all heritage trees. We did make some progress. We were able to create a tree canopy goal of 10% along with a Tree Master Plan. It is why the City now tracks more closely how many trees are removed versus how many are planted.

I encourage anyone who is a resident and who cares about MV trees to apply to join the Parks & Rec Commission when the City advertises openings. I believe there was an opening earlier this year and only one person applied. There are openings on a regular basis because you're only allowed to serve on any City commission for a maximum of two terms of four years.


Mt View Neighbor
North Whisman
on Jul 2, 2018 at 3:39 pm
Mt View Neighbor, North Whisman
on Jul 2, 2018 at 3:39 pm

It’s obvious we’re losing trees. Planting small trees doesn’t replace large ones. Tons of construction displaces plants. Its pretty simple. You can create all charts, data and “studies” that say otherwise. Bottom line is if you keep developing open space, putting more and more buildings in smaller spaces, there’s less space for plants, even if you “replant”.

The result is there isn't enough oxygen and people get crazy. We’ve got the crazy here in Mountain View.

I was driving on 13th St. yesterday in San Jose. That major thoroughfare gets less traffic than our “quiet” residential streets. The reality is pretty sobering.


Mark Noack
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on Jul 2, 2018 at 3:54 pm
Mark Noack, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on Jul 2, 2018 at 3:54 pm

Thanks everyone for your comments on this.

I wanted to highlight for everyone that we've posted a link in the story to a data map showing the various sites where trees were removed.

Web Link

We're working on being able to embed this and future data illustrations in our articles.


Ya, uhhmm...
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 2, 2018 at 4:30 pm
Ya, uhhmm..., Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 2, 2018 at 4:30 pm

"Planting small trees doesn’t replace large ones."

That's....exactly what happens. The new trees mature and shade for 60 years. That's how nature works as well...small trees replace the dead ones.
I'm pretty sure that's how it has worked.

Should we replace 60 year old trees with new 60 year old trees when the old ones fall over?

Seems a bit daft.


MyOpinion
Registered user
Sylvan Park
on Jul 2, 2018 at 7:27 pm
MyOpinion, Sylvan Park
Registered user
on Jul 2, 2018 at 7:27 pm

@ya The point is the canopy is shrinking in MV, this would NEVER happen in Los Altos, this is all recent news. Healthy trees are coming down, these are not just replacing diseased end of life trees. And it takes decades to replace them. MV bears the brunt of all the problems caused by a booming Silicon Valley Economy (housing homelessness etc) while the affluent execs who benefit from this boom choose to live in places like Los Altos, Atherton, Los Gatos, places not being cemented over with huge apartment complexes.


sonia
Slater
on Jul 2, 2018 at 8:56 pm
sonia, Slater
on Jul 2, 2018 at 8:56 pm

I don't understand why we don't have zoning laws in Mountain View like the one in Los Altos? Are people living in Mountain View not humans? Are the big companies invading Mountain View going to deprive us of our basic rights?


Steven Nelson
Registered user
Cuesta Park
on Jul 3, 2018 at 10:36 am
Steven Nelson, Cuesta Park
Registered user
on Jul 3, 2018 at 10:36 am

Thanks Voice Reporter Mark! I did not notice the data link you had to the city GIS system (Geographical Information System). PROBLEM - why the heck is the tree database 5 years old?

???? 2013 data base is not sufficient alone to determine "trend data". Over 60,000 trees in that data base, if we had (as a City) the 2018 data for each of those trees (and "former trees") the problem of unknown metrics would not exist.

City Manager of Mountain View - please get this job of city management done (ASAP pretty please).

City Council candidates - please make your policy views on this issue publicly clear. What EXACTLY would you work to change in current policy and current data tracking?


Robyn
another community
on Jul 5, 2018 at 2:36 pm
Robyn, another community
on Jul 5, 2018 at 2:36 pm

Yes, lamentably.
"They paved Paradise, Put up a parking lot..."


ML Kyle
Registered user
Monta Loma
on Jul 6, 2018 at 10:05 am
ML Kyle, Monta Loma
Registered user
on Jul 6, 2018 at 10:05 am

Mountain View is losing its residents. I care less about trees than I do about ensuring that we build enough housing.

If we didn't have so many 1-2 story buildings, we'd have a lot more open space for large trees. So start approving really, really tall buildings.


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