On a sunny mid-April day, it’s starting to look like spring in San Veron Park. Trees scattered throughout the green space are covered in new leaves, and the grass is lush after a particularly rainy winter.
But one tree toward the center of the Mountain View park stands out: it’s brown and practically leafless, surrounded by orange fencing. The tree is a coast redwood, but it’s barely recognizable. It was transplanted to its current location last summer, and in a matter of months went from looking full and healthy to brittle and spindly, nearby residents say.
Who’s to blame for the tree’s demise is unclear. The city of Mountain View says that timeline constraints from a PG&E project gave them no other choice but to move the tree during the heat of summer last year. The utility company says its project isn’t starting until later this year, and that the city could have moved the tree any time prior to construction — including during the colder months, when the tree may have had a better chance at survival.
The city disputes this: Staff say that the tree was transplanted before it became clear that PG&E's project would be delayed.
The tree was transplanted last summer from a nearby location in San Veron Park to make way for a new PG&E gas regulator station. According to a city staff report from when the new equipment was first approved in February 2022, the stations reduce pressure as large gas pipelines feed into smaller pipelines that serve nearby homes and businesses.
Mountain View Chief Communications Officer Lenka Wright told the Voice that PG&E and city staff worked together to determine if it was feasible to move the tree, and that it was considered a pilot program.
PG&E agreed to pay for the transplant, which was completed on Aug. 16 last year by a tree relocation contractor, Mighty Tree Movers, according to the city.
“Unfortunately the day of the transplant was right around the time when we had a record heat wave,” said resident Albert Jeans, who lives near San Veron Park. “The tree immediately got burned. There were a few semi-green branches, so we thought maybe it might be able to hang on, but over the course of the next several months it got browner and browner. It’s looking pretty scraggly now.”
Jeans reached out to the city in early April asking for an update on the tree.
“The fact that it was transplanted during a severe heat wave while we were in extreme drought conditions probably contributed to its demise,” Jeans wrote in his email to city staff.
Mountain View Urban Forest Supervisor Matthew Feisthamel responded to Jeans’ inquiry, saying that the city is aware of the dead tree.
“It is unfortunate the redwood was transplanted in the heat of summer,” Feisthamel wrote in his response, which Jeans shared with the Voice. “But due to project timelines, the tree was required to be transplanted in summer.”
Who decided it was time to transplant?
When asked if the city had any control over when the transplant occurred, city officials said that the timing was determined by PG&E’s project timeline.
“PG&E communicated their schedule with the city and the transplanting work took place to accommodate the submitted schedule,” officials said.
But according to Jeans, the new regulator station didn’t get installed last summer – and as of April this year, he said, there’s still no sign of it.
“You don't (transplant trees) in the middle of summer, in the middle of an exceptional drought,” said Jeans. “PG&E still hasn’t done anything there yet. If they had waited and done it now after months of rain, I’m sure the tree would have survived just fine.”
PG&E confirmed that the new regulator hasn’t been installed yet, and is set to be put in this summer. A spokesperson said the tree did not need to be moved last summer, “only prior to construction beginning, and the city had complete visibility into the project timeline.”
City officials disagree with this characterization. Wright told the Voice that, based on what the city knew last summer, “the redwood tree transplant and the new regulator installation were on parallel timelines.”
“However, PG&E’s installation of the regulator took much longer than anticipated due to legalities over an easement,” Wright said. “The transplant remained on the original summer schedule since it was uncertain how long it would take for easement terms to be reached and a contractor was hired for the tree transplant pilot.”
Wright added that given the redwood’s age, there was never any guarantee that it would be successful in the new location.
What happens next
Mountain View city officials say the city followed the recommendations of the tree transplant contractor and their arborist to give the tree the best shot at surviving. This included giving the tree extra water in the week leading up to the big move.
Since the transplant, the city said it’s been watering the tree on a regular basis. Staff also added fencing around the base of the tree to maintain a root protection zone. But despite these efforts, the tree showed initial signs of shock after the transplant.
“Staff was hopeful the tree would respond quickly and that cooler fall/winter temperatures and rain would help the tree improve over time,” Wright said. “The health of the tree remains in decline at the moment.”
The city said the plan is for the contractor to check on the tree one year after it was moved, so this August, and give the city a report about the health of the tree.
“City forestry staff will review the report, assess the tree, and determine if they agree with the contractor’s assessment,” Wright said.
If the tree needs to be removed, the city will replace it with two new trees to adhere to the 2:1 mitigation ratio that City Council approved when the plan was first adopted in early 2022.
“If it’s determined to not have been successful, there are some lessons to be learned, and at this point, I think staff needs the opportunity to go through that process and do a debrief,” said Community Services Director John Marchant in an interview. “To review this as a case study and (look) at if things could have been done differently or not.”