Tree Restrictions Differ Among Peninsula Cities


Many buyers have now purchased their new homes in the prime spring buying season. Some have bought outdated homes or tear-downs and are ready to get started with construction plans. Others have bought homes that are move-in ready but want to change their landscaping to best utilize the yard for the way their family lives. Either way, due to the established nature of tree canopies throughout Palo Alto and nearby cities, many buyers will be looking into whether they can remove or significantly prune trees on their property.

While all cities on the Peninsula have restrictions on the removal or pruning of trees within their jurisdictions, the severity of those restrictions varies widely. Palo Alto has moderate restrictions which are found in their Tree Technical Manual. Palo Alto has special protection for the Coast Live Oaks, Valley Oaks, and Coast Redwoods that are 57 inches in circumference. In order to remove a tree that is protected, the owner must apply for a permit, pay a $145 fee, and submit a narrative from a certified arborist describing the location, condition, and size of the tree. Palo Alto will then make a determination as to whether the tree may be removed, as well as whether the owner will be required to replace the tree. This usually is required unless the protected tree being removed is dead or dangerous.

While Palo Alto may seem restrictive, buyers in Menlo Park should take a clue from the city’s logo, a large oak tree. Buyers there must consider the presence and location of trees on the property they are interested in. Menlo Park has had ordinances in place since 1979 that protect healthy heritage trees whenever possible. The city also uses a much more encompassing definition of what is a heritage tree, and they define it as any tree with a circumference of 47.1 inches or any native oak tree with a circumference of 31.4 inches. Not only are smaller trees protected as compared to Palo Alto, but all species are protected there. In addition, because Menlo Park requires the City Arborist to visit the property, an owner may not select an arborist to review the removal application. This application requires an owner to pay a $135 fee. The location and size of trees can have a notable impact on the sales prices of homes in Menlo Park because of these restrictions. Recently, a property in Central Menlo Park sold for a fair amount less than it would have if there were no heritage trees located in the prime area on the lot for home expansion.

Los Altos falls in the middle. Any tree that is 48 inches or more in circumference is considered a protected tree and requires both a Tree Removal Permit and approval from the City. All species of that size are protected however, so it is a bit more restrictive than Palo Alto. The one plus is that if an owner wants to remove a protected tree, the permit is only $50.

Compared to all the cities mentioned above, Atherton is the most-builder friendly city for owners looking to remove trees for home expansion. Atherton allows removal of any tree of any size, except native oak trees, that are within the area of the lot where an owner can build their home. In other words, any non-oak tree anywhere, except those within the setbacks from the property lines where an owner may not build, may be removed without a permit. Even then, the trees within the setbacks are not protected unless they are larger than 48 inches in circumference. The one negative of Atherton is that if you need to remove a tree within the setback that is larger than 48 inches, it will cost $750 for the permit application fee and a professional arborist report. Still, if a buyer wants large expansion potential without having to worry about any trees in the way, Atherton is the town for home shopping.

All of these cities may also designate trees as protected for historical or other significant reasons, in which case the same restrictions for the other protected trees apply. Due to these restrictions, even if a buyer is interested in a property in a city with less stringent tree removal restrictions, they should always review the location, size, and species of a tree when considering whether a property is for them, especially if their plans include imminent expansion.