Sonoma’s street trees contribute enormously to the quality of life we all enjoy. The shade and beauty they offer soften the hard lines of concrete and structures and provide nesting for birds. It’s most often the trees and sidewalks that create a neighborhood’s impression rather than the homes.
Like all living things, trees grow and change as they mature; their crowns expand, their roots get larger, branches get thicker. Sometimes the growth of trees disturbs sidewalks, lifting them out of alignment, or limbs get too close to phone lines or wires carrying electricity. In such cases, sidewalks need repair or branches have to be pruned, as PG&E contractors have been doing over the past few years. These are simply the trade offs we must make while living with trees.
When it comes to street trees in Sonoma, however, most residents are unaware of their legal responsibilities and restrictions to properly care for and protect street trees.
Street trees can be placed into two broad categories: (1) trees in the right-of-way, and (2) trees on private property that are significant. Each of these categories of trees are regulated by the city, and any major alteration, pruning, or removal must be done with city approval and by certified tree care professionals. Improper maintenance of trees can result in damage that weakens trees, makes them more vulnerable to disease, and can create unsafe conditions.
Unaware of regulations and eager to alter a tree’s appearance, many residents take it upon themselves to alter street trees, often with terrible results. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Trees in the public right-of-way
Trees in the right-of-way are those that abut the street itself or are located inside a planter strip beside the sidewalk. Any major work on such trees requires permission of the city. Minor pruning is allowed, but any major work such as lowering overall height, removal of large branches, or disturbing roots cannot be done without city approval.
Specifically, as it pertains to trees on public property in the right-of-way, Sonoma’s Municipal Code 12.08.030 states:
“Unless specifically excepted by ordinance of this city, it is unlawful for any person other than the public works director or his/her duly authorized representative to trim, prune, brace, or plant any tree in any public right-of-way, or public property within the city, or to cause the same to be done, unless and until a written permit to do so has first been obtained from the public works director.”
Many, if not most, residents are unaware of this regulation, and the fines that accompany it. A violation of this provision can result in a fine of $1,000.
Significant trees on private property
The other category of street tree are those that are on private property in front or side yards abutting the street, and deemed significant. As defined in the Municipal Code, “‘Significant tree, private’ means any tree having a single trunk circumference greater than four and one-half feet at a height of four and one-half feet, located on a single-family or multifamily residential property within a front yard or street-side yard setback…”
The alteration or removal of a “significant tree” requires a permit issued by the City of Sonoma. Failure to obtain a permit before such work is performed. As per Code: “It is unlawful for any person other than those authorized under emergency circumstances, as set forth within this chapter, to alter, remove, relocate, or cause to be altered, removed, or relocated any significant tree or significant tree, private, as defined in this chapter, unless and until a written permit to do so has first been obtained.”
Many species of Oak attain “significance” and their maintenance requires professional attention, but deciduous species of trees such as Elm and Maple and various species of evergreens such as Redwoods or Cedar can also attain great size.
Improper tree care and damage
Some of the most common damage caused to trees is “topping,” in which large, upper branches are cut to reduce the overall height of a tree. This often creates the opportunity for rot and disease to enter the main trunk of the tree, and weaken its health. It also creates the potential for new growth that is poorly attached and prone to break, further injuring the tree. In this way, even trees that do not qualify as “significant,” but which add to the beauty of a street-scape, are damaged beyond recovery.
Municipal Code regulations covering trees include a “Declaration of legislative purpose and findings” as follows:
“The city council finds and declares that trees contribute greatly to the health, safety, and general welfare of all of the city’s citizens and that the preservation and proper maintenance of trees is a matter of city-wide concern. The city council further finds and determines that it is necessary to enact regulations prohibiting unnecessary damage, removal or destruction of trees.
“The city council recognizes and finds that trees provide great aesthetic benefits, offer windbreaks, provide summer shade, noise abatement and privacy screening, erosion control, act as filters against airborne pollutants, release oxygen, are wildlife habitats and prevent landslides through their root systems. All trees perform these functions for the property on which they are growing. Trees of significant size and maturity perform these functions for all persons living in their vicinity. Trees are key elements in a living system upon which the continued health and welfare of this community depends. In addition, trees in the community and in the neighborhood provide a sense of identity and tradition and enhance property values. “For all of these reasons, it is the goal of the city council to maintain and expand the extent of tree canopy in Sonoma.”