City Trees: Q&A

Though Canopy does not represent the City of Palo Alto, the following information may help answer your city tree questions. Contact the City directly for more information: pwd@cityofpaloalto.org or 650-496-5953.

  1. Which trees are City regulated?
  2. What can residents do to regulated trees?
  3. What if a regulated tree has a problem?
  4. Who can I contact in the City of Palo Alto about trees?
  5. Where can I get City of Palo Alto tree information?
  6. How do regulated trees affect building permit applications?
  7. What are the penalties for violations?
  8. What happens when I contact the City about a tree problem?
  9. There is a City tree that is sick or needs pruning.
  10. What can the City do to reduce street tree litter in front of my house?
  11. A street tree’s roots are ruining my lawn or garden; will the City take care of this?
  12. A street tree’s roots are getting in the way; what can be done?
  13. Street trees are blocking the sun; how can I get more sun on my lawn?
  14. What can I do if a city tree’s sap drips on my walk or car?
  15. Will the City get rid of the insects infesting my street tree?
  16. Can I move or remove a City tree?
  17. May I ask for a City tree to be planted in front of my house?
  18. My private or City-owned tree is growing into the overhead utility wires; will the City trim the tree?
  19. Can I hire someone to work on a City-owned tree?

                                                                            

1. Which trees are city regulated?

  • All city-owned trees–such as: street trees, trees in parks, and other public spaces
  • Protected trees–listed below
  • Heritage trees–individual trees which are specially designated by the City Council 
  • Designated trees–trees included in commercial development landscape plans
  • Any trees that may interfere with utility lines (PUC regulated)

Consult City Tree Regulations for additional important details on regulated trees.

2. What can residents do to regulated trees?

Residents cannot do anything to regulated trees without a permit.

The Tree Protection Ordinance refers to protected trees, heritage trees, or designated trees and prohibits the following actions without a permit: Complete removal or taking any action foreseeably leading to the death of a tree or permanent damage to its health, including but not limited to excessive pruning, cutting, girdling, poisoning, overwatering, unauthorized relocation or transportation of a tree, trenching, excavating, altering the grade, or paving within the dripline area of a tree.

For example, it is not legal to:

  • “Alter the grade” within the dripline area of a regulated tree, as you might do when building a garden wall or raised flowerbed
  • Install a new sprinkler system near a regulated tree if that requires cutting a trench in the dripline area, or if the new sprinklers might cause overwatering (the protected oaks are very sensitive to overwatering)
  • Extend or widen a driveway if that means paving in the dripline area of a regulated tree or within 10′ of the trunk
  • “Excessively prune” a Regulated Tree, meaning to remove more than 25% of it or to unbalance it

You must apply for a permit to perform paving, construction, or trenching around a regulated tree. The trees must be properly protected during construction and not be harmed by the work. For guidelines, see Palo Alto’s Tree Technical Manual

3. What if a protected tree has a problem?

You must apply for a permit to remove a Protected Tree. It may be obtained if the tree: 

  • Is dead
  • Is a hazard 
  • Interferes with public property or another regulated tree 
  • Damages a building, for example by lifting the foundation or damaging the eaves
  • Reduces the buildable space of a vacant lot by 25% or more 

The permit to remove a tree may be conditioned upon replacement of the tree. The Planning Department Arborist will advise on where the replacement can be planted. 

4. Who can I contact in the City of Palo Alto about trees?

Public Works Department – Operations Division – Tree Section
3201 East Bayshore Road Palo Alto CA 94301
Phone: 650-496-5953, Fax: 650-852-9289
Email: pwd@cityofpaloalto.org

Maintenance of city-owned trees, public queries and complaints about city-owned trees, and pruning of trees that affect power lines
 
Planning Department, Planning Arborist 
250 Hamilton Avenue, Palo Alto CA 94301
Phone: 650-617-3145, Fax: 650-329-2154
Email: planningdivision@cityofpaloalto.org

The Planning Department handles plans for construction when trees are included or affected, compliance with city codes regarding trees, the Palo Alto Tree Technical Manual, and issuance of permits

5. Where can I get City of Palo Alto tree information?

The City of Palo Alto’s Tree Technical Manual provides details about how protected trees must be maintained and cared for during building and construction. It specifies particular practices for builders and owners of protected trees. The manual is, in essence, a detailed extension of the ordinance. 

6. How do regulated trees affect building permit applications?

Building plans must show protected trees on the property and within 30 feet of the property in neighboring yards.

7. What are the penalties for violations?

The city can halt a construction project. The city can fine up to $5,000 or the replacement value of a removed protected tree, whichever is greater.

8. What happens when I contact the City about a tree problem?

When you call the City Tree Section of the Public Works Department (650-496-5953) with tree concerns and an inspection is necessary, a work request will be entered into the system and forwarded to the appropriate staff member. It is the City’s goal to respond to requests by making an inspection within 10 working days. The Tree Section does not make appointments for inspections. The inspector assesses the situation and estimates the crew, equipment, and time needed for the job. The work is assigned a priority level and in most cases a postcard reply is sent to inform the resident of the inspection and approximately when the work will be done.

When a tree inspector makes a visit he or she does not usually leave a note but may speak to the resident if available. If the resident is not home, he or she will be advised via phone call or postcard of the assigned trimming priority or other information related to the tree of issue.

There are three work priorities after inspection:

  • PRIORITY 1: City personnel will respond within 10 days. Imminently dangerous conditions are responded to within an hour 24 hours/7 days a week. Call 650-496-5953 during business hours or 650-329-2413 in case of after-hours emergency.
  • PRIORITY 2: City personnel will respond within 90 or 120 days (depending on workloads). In most cases the work is performed well before the time limit.
  • PRIORITY 3: Routine maintenance – City personnel will do what needs to be done for the tree when they come through on their regular seven-to-ten-year pruning cycle.

Most requests are assigned priority 2.

9. There’s a City tree that is sick or needs pruning.

Contact the Public Works Department at 650-496-5963 or pwd@cityofpaloalto.org.

10. What can the City do to reduce street tree litter in front of my house?

There is not much that can be done about tree litter. Trees shade our houses and streets, and they shed leaves; the two are inseparable. Tree litter is a small price to pay for the many benefits trees offer.

11. A street tree’s roots are ruining my lawn or garden; will the City take care of this?

Surface roots are a natural result of a variety of factors. The City Tree Section does not prune roots. If you feel you have a surface root problem please call the Tree Section (650-496-5953) and they will inspect the situation. If anything can be done they will advise you on what is most effective for you and does the least amount of damage to the tree. A permit from the city is needed to cut any part of a city-owned tree above or below ground. There is no charge for the permit.

12. A street tree’s roots are getting in the way; what can be done?

If you have root damage to a driveway, walkway, or patio that you suspect is due to a City tree, and that you intend to repair, call the City Tree Section (650-496-5953) and they will inspect and advise you on how to do the repair so it is most effective for you and does the least amount of damage to the tree.

As mentioned in the answer about root damage to lawns, the city does not repair root damage on private property. The City does repair public sidewalks. Repairs may include full removal and replacement, patching with asphalt or concrete grinding.

Driveway, sidewalk, and patio slabs are usually four inches thick with some rock underneath and they are surprisingly vulnerable to root damage. If you are installing a new slab in the vicinity of a tree, placing a plastic root barrier at the edge may minimize damage to the slab. A plastic barrier is better than a concrete one because it won’t crack. A root needs only a small crack to penetrate concrete.

Simply cutting roots will not fix the problem permanently. The remaining stub will simply sprout new roots. As the roots below a slab grow in diameter, they exert considerable outward pressure, displacing soil and ultimately, lifting the slab. 

The perimeter foundation under your house is deeper than driveway slabs and usually repels roots by acting as its own root barrier.

Before you cut any roots on a city owned tree you must first obtain a permit. Call the Tree Section at 650-496-5953.

13. Street trees are blocking the sun; how can I get more sun on my lawn?

If you are interested in thinning a tree to provide more sunlight for your lawn, please be aware that most tree species cannot be thinned without causing damage to the tree. Trees and grass both require sunlight to survive. 

Contact the City Tree Section if you think your tree needs thinning. 650-496-5953.

14. What can I do if a city tree drips on my walk or car?

If you are experiencing problems with tree dripping, it may be a seasonal problem. But often it is evidence of an insect problem; see the next question.

15. Will the city get rid of the insects infesting my street tree?

If you suspect insect problems with your tree, call the City Tree Section (650-496-5953) to arrange for an inspection. If they approve your request and it is possible to do so, the City Tree Section will apply appropriate control measures, or arrange to have them done. However, relief may not be immediate. Some insects respond to treatment only at certain stages of their lives, and in other instances treatment may not be effective unless applied the following season.

16. May I ask for a City tree to be planted in front of my house? 

If you would like to plant a street tree, you may make a request the City Tree Section by submitting a request online or calling 650-496-5953. The Tree Section will inspect the site, taking into consideration factors such as site conditions, proximity of underground utilities and hardscape and will make a determination if the site is suitable for a street tree. The city will also choose the species of tree that will be planted. The City Tree Section will plant the tree during their seasonal planting, or may have Canopy arrange for a neighborhood planting day.

17. Can I move or remove a City tree for a new driveway, walkway, or utility?

The first step to take when you consider making such alterations is to contact the Public Works Tree Section and have an arborist evaluate the site and discuss with you the project and its potential impact on public trees. Having this information in advance will help you through the design process. Before you begin construction, all public (and protected) trees must be disclosed. A disclosure form can be obtained at the City Development Center, 285 Hamilton Avenue.

As part of its efforts to support a sustainable urban forest, the City carefully selects tree planting locations to avoid conflicts with utilities and to prevent hardscape damage. Still, every year the City loses dozens of tree sites due to impacts from construction. Construction activity, particularly when it involves trenching, can harm or even kill trees. Construction acitivity also has the potential to reduce tree root-zones which halts the continued growth of existing trees, and eliminates possible sites for new trees. New driveways, walkways, and utilities that encroach on trees’ root-zones can make existing planting sites obsolete. The loss of a planting sites means there is one less public tree contributing to our urban forest canopy; thus, retaining every viable planting site is crucial to the sustainability of the urban forest.

Currently, any work proposed within 10’ of a public tree must be approved by the Public Works managing arborist, and the City is not always able to accommodate all design proposals. Public trees and planting sites are an important part of the City’s infrastructure and the City has an obligation to protect public assets. Instead of removing a tree, often a compromise in design can be reached that represents an improvement to the public treescape as well as to the private development. In this way, you can avoid future expensive repair costs to your new driveway or walkway, and the City can maximize the social and environmental services each tree provides.
 

18. My private or City-owned tree is growing into the overhead utility wires; will the City trim the tree?

The City operates and maintains its own electric utility (also gas, water and wastewater). If you believe your own tree(s) and vines or the city’s tree(s) are growing into the overhead electric wires (usually the mid-level and upper wires), call the Tree Section at 650-496-5953 for an inspection. If vegetation needs to be cleared away from the electric wires as required by State law, arrangements will be made to have the city’s contractor do the clearing. There is no charge for this service.

Note that the City will not clear telephone or cable TV wires as they do not belong to the City.

If you are planting a tree under or near overhead electric wires, please select a species that will not grow up into the wires. Contact the City Tree Section or Canopy for a list of suitable species for your situation.

19. Can I hire someone to work on a City-owned tree?

Generally the City provides all services required for street trees. Call the Public Works Tree Section at 650-496-5953 to discuss the work you want done. Having the City do the work ensures it will be performed to City standards and will be free of charge. In certain rare occasions the Tree Section may issue a permit for work done by a third party contractor ensuring that the work be done to city standards. The City will not permit topping a tree or cutting its limbs back to bare stubs. It is a violation of municipal code to perform or have any work performed on a City-owned tree without a permit. 

Acting as a natural air-conditioner, Palo Alto’s lush canopy ensures that summer temperatures are at least 6 to 8 degrees lower than in comparable neighborhoods without trees.