(Part 2 of a two-part series. See Part 1.)
At first, David Zicarelli and Ginny Troyer knew nothing about the contentious history of their lovely trees. “We had no idea what we were getting into,” Zicarelli explained.
It was only after the family had moved in and they began to read articles about the dangers of living under blue-gum eucalyptus trees and speaking to neighbors about their experiences with their eucs that they became nervous.
“One neighbor of ours had a eucalyptus fall from the impact of the Blue Angel [airplanes] passing overhead,” Zicarelli told me during a survey of his property with his landscape architect, Steve McGuirk, who specializes in native plants and environmental consulting. “It wasn’t even windy.”
Their next-door neighbor, poet Robert Sward, became a vociferous enemy of the eucalyptus in 1996 after his wife witnessed a euc falling from Zicarelli and Troyer’s property and almost hitting an adjacent PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) transfer station. Without getting a permit, he hired a tree cutter to remove eucalyptus trees, but the city caught him just after he started the job and red-tagged the property. Last year, Audubon magazine, the Los Angeles Times and CBC Radio’s “As It Happens” interviewed him about his fight with city hall.
Troyer and Zicarelli had no intention of becoming public advocates for or against their trees. But, gradually, they became convinced that many of the eucalyptuses presented a serious hazard to their home and family. The property had a visible history of falling trees: The lot is littered with old stumps, and some of the biggest and oldest of the protected trees formed a canopy right over the house. Zicarelli says that during the past 20 years, 13 trees have fallen over.
Moreover, because the creek/drainage corridor was a result of the city funneling urban runoff onto their property decades after the eucalyptuses had been planted, the wetland soil created particularly unsafe conditions for the giant but shallow-rooted trees. Yet because of the special conditions placed on the property and the city’s heritage-tree ordinance, the couple faced what seemed to be an ecopolitical Catch-22.
“The thing that got to us was the feeling we might be told that we couldn’t make our home safe,” Troyer said.
Unaware of how hard it could be just to remove a few trees, Zicarelli and Troyer initially petitioned Leslie Keedy, Santa Cruz’s city arborist, who is central to the permitting process, to meet with a tree cutter to discuss removing the six closest trees around their home.
When Keedy asked the tree cutter for corroborating documentation from a soil engineer and a plant pathologist, Zicarelli began to see the magnitude of the process. “It became pretty clear we needed someone more sophisticated to do what the city wanted,” he said.
The couple then hired a lawyer, who put them in contact with an independent, certified arborist, James P. Allen, who had already done an analysis of the property for a previous owner and had extensive background with other eucalyptus cases. According to Zicarelli, the arborist had warned the previous developer and the city about the dangers of the trees, but to no avail. He was so dismayed about how the case turned out–the building went ahead with provisions for preserving rather than removing the trees–that for a time he swore off doing any more projects in Santa Cruz.
Even though the family was desperate to cut down their trees, they were hesitant to leap into such a political hotbed. “We heard that certain city politicians were so extremely pro-tree that they wouldn’t pick up a fallen tree off a small child,” Zicarelli said wryly. After six months of plotting, nail biting and wondering whether their house had become unsellable because it was perched below rotting, towering trees that might not be legally removable, the couple experienced a dangerously close call that turned into a stroke of good fortune.
On the warm, still evening of June 19, 2002, while Zicarelli was washing his car, a 105-foot-tall, 36-inch-diameter tree that had been rooted in the wetland fell across their property. No one was hurt, and it didn’t hit the house, but the uprooted tree revealed the ingredients that made the eucalyptuses on this particular property so potentially dangerous. The soil was black and wet, the roots shallow and rotting.
When city officials saw the fallen tree, they offered the family an emergency permit–not just for the original six specimens but for a whopping 25 trees, as long as the couple could offer expert evidence.
Zicarelli and Troyer then shelled out $7,000 to the certified arborist, who produced a 23-page spiral-bound report complete with charts, graphs and color photos and including his analysis (the trees are dangerous), findings by a plant pathologist (the trees are sick) and a report from a geotechnical engineer (the soil, some of which harbors old car tires, a washing machine and broken glass, is wet and not very stable).
In the meantime, the couple began to worry about another government body possibly taking control of their land: The California Department of Fish and Game had written them a letter claiming jurisdiction over their property because it is an official riparian zone. The state agency said that removing the trees would cause serious erosion. Fearful that yet another bureaucracy would monopolize their lives, the couple decided they not only needed to remove the trees, they had to make their tree-removal project a model of native-plant gardening.
With the help of landscape architect Steve McGuirk, they undertook a massive reclamation project, replanting the area with hundreds of native plants and trees (and some noninvasive nonnatives) to the tune of $80,000. So far, all the officials who have come to inspect the project since have praised the three-zone plan of wetland shrubs, transitional deciduous and evergreen vegetation and upland evergreens. In this planned wilderness of sticky monkey flower, blackberry, mugwort and coastal live oak (and scores of other plants), the gentle bend of the waterway and its banks teem with new and diverse life.
Leslie Keedy upholds Zicarelli and Troyer as models of how homeowners can enhance the habitat and manage the healthy trees on their property.
“They did everything correctly, above and beyond the call,” Keedy says. “It was not only safe but very much environmentally correct.” She adds that she wants to use their project as a case study and create a PowerPoint presentation about its benefits to the natural habitat. “It’s a test case of what can be done,” she said.
The problem for many other homeowners, of course, is that they can’t afford to furnish the evidence required to convince the city that it is necessary to remove trees, much less turn their property into a model of native restoration.
To such objections, Keedy said she thinks all homeowners need to think twice before buying a home surrounded with big trees: “When looking at real estate, people need to be bright eyed about houses that are underneath huge trees, whether they’re eucalyptus or anything else.”
As Troyer and Zicarelli’s experience proves, tall trees–especially eucalyptuses–can spell trouble for homeowners. In the end, it cost a small fortune and took hundreds of hours to hire and manage a veritable army of experts and laborers, including a certified arborist, a monarch-butterfly specialist, a lawyer, a landscape architect, a soil engineer, an environmental-planning consultant, security guards (during the removal, in case of activist protests) and teams of haulers, tree cutters and gardeners.
But now that they are nearing the end of their ordeal, Zicarelli and Troyer consider themselves almost lucky. They had the resources (after refinancing their home) to hire the necessary experts. They also were fortunate enough to have a tree fall just as they were applying for a tree-removal permit.
Even so, they also worry the project will never really end. On a walk through the property, Zicarelli thrust a three-foot-long stick into a hole in a huge eucalyptus. It disappeared, and one could hear it scratching against the other side of the trunk. By my calculations, if this rotting tree fell at just the wrong angle, it would hit their home. “There are still some more like this that we’d like to take out,” Zicarelli said. “But we can’t afford it.”
Leslie Keedy maintains that the circumstances of the Meder Street property make it an exception rather than a rule and that plenty of eucalyptus groves in Santa Cruz don’t have the same history of “failure” (arborist’s argot for falling over). In most cases, she prefers management rather than removal, contending that there are valid arguments on both side of the eucalyptus debate.
“As an ornithologist or an entomologist, you could construct a case for protecting or removing eucalyptuses,” she said. “The great blue herons use the eucalyptus exclusively for roosting, for instance. And the groves shade the creek and allow the baby fish to survive.”
She acknowledges that eucalyptuses, because of the falling duff and volatile oils, require extra maintenance to prevent fire hazards. “The eucalyptus actually has [an] agent which is volatile by its own formulation,” she explains. “This is why the Oakland Hills fire burned so hot.” Still, she argues, all trees are potential fire hazards–some just take a little more maintenance.
Despite her generally impartial attitude toward the eucalyptus, she tells me the city has begun to consider amending the heritage-tree ordinance to make it a little easier for property owners to remove invasive, nonnative trees such as eucalyptuses.
Whatever the fate of the hot-button eucalyptus trees of California, the real estate nightmare Zicarelli and Troyer endured shows just how complicated homeowners’ lives can become when they buy properties subject to a set of laws dedicated to placating interest groups but not necessarily responding to the whole picture. Maybe the property should never have been a home site at all, but, because it now is one, it seems ridiculous to protect any habitat, much less an invasive, nonnative, artificial one, rather than the people living there.
Carol Lloyd’s Surreal Estate column appears every Tuesday on sfgate.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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