Opponents of Cupertino tree-planting program draw battle lines in the grass
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Mike Chaba is protective of his front lawn, which he views as a symbol of suburban homeownership. For 20 years, he has enjoyed tossing the football there with his sons.
But these days the lawn represents something else to Chaba. It’s a constant reminder that Cupertino has told him a tree needs to be planted in front of his house, part of a citywide program to add 1,600 trees in four years.
Ever since he found out, Chaba has been on a crusade. He goes door-to-door in his Rancho Rinconada neighborhood, posting flyers and pleading in exasperated tones for others to stand with him and seek an exemption from the city. “We got a notice that…they were going to come with shovels,” he said.
Across town, Weimin Ma speaks just as passionately in support of the “reforesting” program, which the Cupertino resident helped launch by testifying at a City Council meeting in March. Ma implored the council to plant more street trees, particularly on the many planting strips that are empty.
While cities across the Bay Area have tree-planting programs, the reason so much dirt is being kicked up in Cupertino is that, in some neighborhoods, private lawns blend into the public easement. For two decades, Chaba has taken care of three feet of city property that he considered part of his front lawn.
“Because the planting strip is between the sidewalk and the yard, most people don’t know where [their yard] starts and where the public easement begins,” City Manager David Brandt said. “So people have gotten used to thinking that it’s their yard…and they think you’re essentially planting a tree on their property.”
Homeowners are being asked to choose a tree from a list of 13 species that the city will plant for free. A few Rancho Rinconada residents have vowed to pick the slowest growing tree in protest.
Chaba said his front yard has never had a tree since he’s lived there, and he doesn’t understand why the city is “replanting.” One explanation is that when Rancho Rinconada was annexed by the city 10 years ago, there were few street trees in the neighborhood, according to former Mayor Mark Santoro, who remains on the council.
What frustrates Chaba most is that the city will not allow homeowners to opt-out. At a Nov. 5 meeting, he found a supporter in council member Rod Sinks. “I’m wondering if it’s really wise to mandate a tree when people are really very upset about it,” Sinks said. “We ought look at this with some flexibility.”
In an interview this week, Brandt, the city manager, said the program “doesn’t have an official opt-out … but we’re not forcing anybody who’s registered a complaint to have a tree planted in the public parking strip in front of their house.” At the November meeting, Brandt estimated that fewer than 5 percent of homeowners had complained.
Chaba insists that Cupertino is “wasting” too much money on trees. A Peninsula Press analysis found that the city spent about $36.27 per resident on street trees in its 2011-2012 budget — less than Mountain View ($41.08) and Palo Alto ($39.40), for example. But Cupertino’s per-capita tree spending increased significantly in the 2012-13 budget, to about $42.77.
Cupertino officials point out that their tree population, numbering about 13,000, lagged behind that of several nearby cities. (Story continues after the charts below.)
In September 2011, the City Council adopted a resolution to apply for a Tree City USA distinction from the Arbor Day Foundation, which recognizes cities that have “effective programs for managing their urban forests,” said Sean Barry, director of media relations for the nonprofit.
The streetscape revitalization is part of this effort. The Department of Public Works also designed QR codes to attach to every street tree so that residents can recognize a public tree and look up information about it, such as the species and age, as well as report if the tree requires attention.
Cupertino can fine residents $2,937 per tree if they illegally prune a public tree more than 25 percent or cut it down without a permit. In addition, it is illegal for residents to plant trees on the city’s easement, because officials want to document every tree and regulate the species planted.
One reason Ma pushed for the program was that the city wasn’t always enforcing its rules. Cupertino usually removes public trees if they are dying or a pose a safety threat. Then, residents are sent a form to request a new tree. But some residents forget to submit the form or choose to ignore it, Ma said.”Somehow,” he said, “someone just dropped the ball…the city doesn’t follow up.”
The forms are now available online. Ma, meantime, frequently walks door-to-door to give his neighbors forms to request public trees in front of their yards.
In a similar but unrelated debate, Mark Taylor has complained about Cupertino’s private tree ordinance, saying it unreasonably demands residents to replace protected heritage trees that are removed due to safety concerns.
Taylor said he has to pay nearly $1,000 to plant two small trees and remove a 300-year-old oak that failed. That was after he had paid several hundreds of dollars for the city arborist to evaluate the oak and eventually remove it.
As it is, Taylor said, his front yard is overcrowded with trees.