(Part 1 of a two-part series. See Part 2.)
The winds are howling. A canopy of six giant trees is tossing refuse on your roof and creaking like old bones. You know the nearly 200-foot-tall trees are unbalanced and probably rotting at the roots. You know they should be cut down, but, according to the law, you’re not allowed to. What would you do?
“Whenever stuff would fall on the house, I’d get so nervous,” explains Ginny Troyer, a graduate student in literature at U.C. Santa Cruz.
“A couple times a year, we get 60-mile-an-hour winds here,” says her husband, music-software designer David Zicarelli. “We couldn’t sleep.”
So concerned was the couple that they packed up their two children and moved to friends’ houses when fierce storms hit.
Only a year before, Troyer and Zicarelli had bought their dream house in Santa Cruz, Calif., with little expectation that they were about to take a trip into the Alice in Bureaucracyland of urban forestry.
It all looked so perfect. The gorgeous 3,400-square-foot house with cathedral windows, built just three years ago, was perched on a woodsy 1.5-acre wonderland complete with a trickle of a creek and more than 120 towering eucalyptus trees. Set amid suburban developments and the sometimes tree-scarce lots of their north Santa Cruz neighborhood, the property seemed like a natural sanctuary magically preserved inside the city limits.
In fact, the seemingly rustic property had a decidedly artificial history. The trees had been planted by a public-works project during the Depression. The creek was in fact a drainage ditch created when the city funneled urban runoff across the property. Even the soil itself consisted of landfill.
The property’s unique physical characteristics, combined with a peculiar legal legacy and Santa Cruz’s strict heritage-tree laws, would end up costing Zicarelli and Troyer some $200,000 in legal, consulting and landscaping fees, and shudders of anxiety every time the wind blew. It would also compel them to turn their lot into a micro-model of native-habitat reclamation–all because the glorious eucalyptus trees that had originally captured their passions were growing not only in unstable, unsuitable soil but also in a vitriolic enviropolitical battlefield of the California eucalyptus wars.
The legal battle over the Meder Street property began in 1996 when a neighbor filed a lawsuit against the city and a previous owner of the property to stop plans to build a house on the lot. The neighbor claimed that because of the “creek,” the entire building site was a riparian zone and the city of Santa Cruz concurred and prohibited any construction within 100 feet without a variance.
In the end, another developer succeeded in getting the required permits and built a spacious single-family house. But to do so, he had to agree to 37 conditions, many of which had been crafted by the first developer to assuage the city’s planning department and a community of concerned citizens.
Most of the conditions–from preserving possible California Indian burial sites to minimizing disturbances of nesting raptors–affected only the builder, but others were more far-reaching. One seemed to be a blanket provision designating the majority of the property “a private open-space easement which is to remain undisturbed.” This could prohibit the homeowners from weeding, planting flowers or putting up a fence. Other conditions required putting in a solid, permanent fence between the house and the rest of the property, as well as prohibiting lighting in the drainage corridor (to avoid bothering the fauna and flora there) and barring construction of a wood-burning fireplace (so as not to disturb monarch butterflies that sometimes roost in some cypress trees in a nearby Jewish cemetery).
But the one overriding condition that was meant to preserve this pseudo-natural habitat was that the owners must “retain (and safeguard in perpetuity) the large heritage trees…unless the trees are found to be diseased or unhealthy as determined by a certified arborist.”
This provision calling for preserving the eucalyptuses in “perpetuity” lay at the center of Zicarelli and Troyer’s predicament. For many years, native-plant specialists around the world have been decrying certain species of eucalyptus tree, such as the blue gum, which are highly invasive, destructive of native habitat and highly flammable.
In their native Australia, they’re called “widowmakers” for their shallow-rooted propensity to fall or to drop large limbs. In 2002, an article in Audubon magazine titled “America’s Largest Weed” enumerated the various claims against eucalyptuses, including their possible killing of native songbirds (some botanists contend that the sap chokes them), their powerful ability to invade and turn native habitats into “‘euc’ monoculture,” their uselessness as a crop or logging material and their incendiary oils, which have earned them the nickname “gasoline trees” among firefighters. Since the blue gum drops bark, branches and leaves at an amazing rate, and California, unlike Australia, lacks the microbes and insects that feed on it, the brush requires constant maintenance to reduce the risk of fire hazard.
But the blue gum, with its aromatic leaves and towering trunks, has also attracted its share of impassioned defenders. Many have dismissed the “euc” critics as professionals eager to make money off fearmongering and native-plant bigotry. One San Francisco-based group, POET (Preserve Our Eucalyptus Trees), took root during the fight over whether to cut down some 80 acres of eucalyptuses on Angel Island in the mid-1990s. (In the end, POET lost, but not before requiring the state Department of Parks and Recreation to spend an extra year conducting studies and environmental-impact reports to the tune of more than $50,000.)
The blue gum has been planted in coastal communities throughout California for the past 150 years, often promoted by politicians who sought to beautify naturally treeless landscapes and misinformed entrepreneurs who hoped to make money off the fast-spreading groves. And, from the beginning, they’ve stirred controversy: Ansel Adams, criticizing the trees as “tasteless,” successfully protested euc plantings by Boy Scouts on naturally treeless landscapes in Marin County. As the groves have spread (they double in size every 10 years) and botanists have called for restoration of imperiled native ecosystems, the eucalyptus wars have exploded in a motley variety of neighborhood battles all over California.
Most of the reported euc battles seem to be conducted between neighbors who love their tall trees and city- or county-associated arborists, botanists and native-plant activists who wish to see them eradicated. In San Francisco, for instance, neighbors who wanted to preserve the trees on parkland clashed with city-appointed environmentalists who argued the trees were too invasive and too destructive to the native ecosystem. One controversy, reported in The San Francisco Chronicle, erupted last year when neighbors heard that the Natural Areas Program, a little-known project of the city’s Park and Recreation Department, was planning to destroy eucalyptus trees in Golden Gate Park and replace them with a variety of native plants–poison oak among them.
County and city laws vary when it comes to dealing with homeowners who wish to remove eucalyptus trees from their property. In Oakland, Calif., where the highly combustible eucalyptus trees were named as one possible culprit for the magnitude of the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, the protected-tree act specifically excludes eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees (another non-native tree). Woodside, Calif., also excludes eucalyptuses from its tree-removal-permitting process. In Marin County, eucalyptus trees are not excluded, but city policy allows homeowners to cut down up to five trees of their own choice each year without a permit.
But in Santa Cruz, where forests of eucalyptus spread from the mountains to the sea, the heritage-tree act is a little more exacting. It requires a permit for removing or heavy pruning of any tree more than 14 inches in diameter, and removal of three or more trees requires obtaining a report from a certified arborist, a soil engineer and a plant pathologist. According to one certified arborist, not only do plenty of ordinary citizens object to eucalyptus removal, but a few city officials had publicly proclaimed they will never agree to have a heritage tree removed. So, in Santa Cruz, instead of neighborhoods fighting to prevent their city or county from removing the trees from public land, local homeowners are battling city hall to cut trees down on their own property.
Carol Lloyd’s Surreal Estate column appears every Tuesday on sfgate.com. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
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