Heritage tree protections

Menlo Park desires to protect and preserve the scenic beauty and natural environment, prevent erosion of topsoil and sedimentation in waterways, encourage quality development, provide shade and wildlife habitat, counteract pollutants in the air and decrease wind velocities and noise. The primary intention of the ordinance is to ensure that there will be a significant population of large, healthy trees over the long term. 

The City Council approved a new heritage tree ordinance, effective July 1, 2020. The following sections describe the new changes to the amended heritage tree ordinance: 
  • Heritage tree permit applications: To practice safety protocols during the pandemic, applicants may submit heritage tree permit applications online. Paper applications will no longer be accepted after October 1.
  • A City-approved consulting arborists list: Applicants must hire one of the consulting arborist from the City’s approved list.
  • The decision making criteria: The new criteria is more concise and clearer than the current criteria.
  • The replacement tree requirements: For non-development projects, the requirements depends on the size of the heritage tree’s trunk diameter. For development projects, the monetary value of the replacement trees must be at least equal to the appraised value of the heritage tree. If those requirements cannot be met, a written statement is needed to explain why an in lieu fee payment shall be allowed.
  • The appeal process: Community members must submit an appeal form and payment electronically or hard copy to initiate the appeal process. The new ordinance changed who is applicable to appeal, the appealing body is different, and the City may request additional materials. 

Definition of a heritage tree

  1. Any tree other than oaks has a trunk with a circumference of 47.1 inches (diameter of 15 inches) or more, measured at 54 inches above natural grade.
  2. Any oak tree native to California has a trunk with a circumference of 31.4 inches (diameter of 10 inches) or more measured at 54 inches above natural grade.
  3. tree or group of trees specifically designated by the City Council for protection because of its historical significance, special character or community benefit.

Any tree with more than one trunk that falls under (1) and (2) shall be measured at the diameter below the main union of all multi-trunk trees. If the tree has more than one trunk and the union is below grade, each stem shall be measured as a standalone tree. Multi-trunk trees under 12 feet in height shall not be considered a heritage tree.

Maintenance and protection

Heritage trees are required to be preserved and maintained in a state of good health. The intention of this provision is to require reasonable measures such as correct watering, periodic inspection, proper pruning and not engaging in practices that are detrimental to the tree. The ordinance also requires any person who conducts grading, excavation, demolition or construction activity on a property to do so in a manner that does not threaten the health or viability or cause the removal of any heritage tree. Any work performed within an area 10 times the diameter of the tree (i.e., the tree protection zone) requires the submittal of a tree protection plan for approval by the City before issuance of any permit for grading or construction.

Decision making criteria

The heritage tree ordinance lists the following considerations to use in determining whether there is good cause for removal or heavy pruning of a heritage tree. The heritage tree ordinance administrative guidelines offer further explanation on each criterion.

Decision making criteria Description 
Criterion 1: Death The heritage tree is dead.
Criterion 2: Tree risk rating
The condition of heritage tree poses a high or extreme risk rating under the International Society of Arboriculture Best Management Practices.
Criterion 3: Tree health rating The heritage tree is (a) dying or has a severe disease, pest infestation, intolerance to adverse site conditions, or (b) likely to die within a year.
Criterion 4: Species
The heritage tree has been designated as invasive or low species desirability.
Criterion 5: Development
The heritage tree interferes with (a) proposed development, repair, alteration, or improvement of a site or (b) the heritage tree is causing/contributing to structural damage to a habitable building. There is no financially feasible and reasonable design alternative that would permit preservation of the heritage tree.
Criterion 6: Utility Inference                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
The removal is requested by a utility, public transportation agency, or other governmental agency due to a health or safety risk resulting from the heritage tree’s interference with existing or planned public infrastructure. There is no financially feasible and reasonable design alternative that would permit preservation of the heritage tree.

Permit applications for removal or pruning

Any property owner wanting to remove a heritage tree, or prune more than one-fourth of the canopy and/or roots, must apply for a permit from the City. Online heritage tree permit applications are now available as the City will no longer accept paper application starting on October 1, 2020. Please refer to the Master Fee Schedule for the current permit fees. Applicants must hire an arborist from the City approved consulting arborists list. These arborists submitted their qualifications to demonstrate their ability to comply with the City’s heritage tree ordinance

The city arborist will review the application and the arborist report, visit the property and evaluate the tree and related conditions on the property. Applicants are encouraged to mark trees requested for removal with a yellow ribbon to facilitate the site visit for the city arborist and other city staff. Once the city arborist visits the property, he will either approve or deny a permit or request further review by staff. He/she may request relevant documentation from the applicant to determine whether removal is justified.

For non-development related permit applications, notices are not required to be posted on the tree.

For development-related permit applications, the permit applicants are responsible for posting City-issued notices on or near the tree, stating the reasons for tree removal (or heavy pruning). Staff will mail notices to property owners and residents within 300 feet surrounding the applicant’s property.

If the city arborist approves the permit, and there are no written appeals of his decision, a permit will be issued to the owner of the property. If the permit is approved, a copy of it must be in possession of the tree company on-site during the tree work. If further review of the application and comments are required, staff will strive to issue a decision in a reasonable period.

Construction-related tree removals

Applicants must hire project arborists from the City approved consulting arborist list. These large project removals are defined as development-related projects and projects involving the removal of 4 of more trees. The arborist report for large projects outlines the requirements for a permit application submission. For instance, site plans are required to indicate (a) the heritage tree species and (b) the size and location of the proposed replacement trees. Heritage tree permits related to planning or building permits will also be charged for City-retained arborist expenses.

Permit decision

The appeal period begins when staff makes a decision on whether or not the tree removal or heavy pruning is approved and lasts for 15 days. A community member must submit a heritage tree appeal form online and he/she must pay appeal fee (refer to Master Fee Schedule) within the appeal period. For more information on the appeal process and the appeal requirements, please review the ordinance language and the heritage tree ordinance administrative guidelines. The table below summarizes who can appeal staff’s decision and who is the appealing body.

Decision making criteria  Who can appeal Appealing body
Criterion 1, 2, 3, or 4  Permit applicant City manager or his/her designee
Criterion 5, or 6 Any community member (residents and property owners) Environmental Quality Commission and City Council
Planning Commission- related projects                      Any community member Environmental Quality Commission, Planning Commission, and City Council

Violation penalties

Any person who violates the ordinance, including property owners, occupants, tree companies and gardeners, could be held liable for violation of the ordinance. The ordinance prohibits removal or pruning of over one-fourth of the tree, vandalizing, mutilating, destruction and unbalancing of a heritage tree without a permit. If a violation occurs during construction, the City may issue a stop-work order suspending and prohibiting further activity on the property until a mitigation plan has been approved, including protection measures for remaining trees on the property. Civil penalties may be assessed against any person who commits, allows or maintains a violation of any provision of the ordinance.

The following penalty shall apply to violations of the heritage tree ordinance, effective July 14, 2020:
  • If a person commits, or maintains a violation of any part of Municipal Code Section 13.24, he/she will be fined in an amount not to exceed $5,000 per violation; and
  • If the violation resulted in the removal or demise of a heritage tree, the fine will not exceed $5,000 per tree or the appraised value of each such tree, whichever amount is higher.