Burlingame considers reviewing reforestation

With no decision yet on the fate of a massive century-old eucalyptus tree that has grown into the street, officials are raising the larger question of refining the city’s reforestation process to prevent drawn-out debates like the one over Tom the tree.

The century-old Tasmanian Blue Gum tree on Easton Drive and Cabrillo Avenue, dubbed “Tom” by advocates, has become a symbol among those who want to maintain the city’s lush landscape.

Because its roots have upended a portion of the road, the council narrowly voted in December to replace it, but after a public outcry it decided in January to study the idea of realigning the road around the tree.

On Monday night, the council could not reach a consensus, and instead debated how to prevent the issue from happening again.

“We need to come up with a more systemic solution,” Mayor Terry Nagel said, adding that there are at least seven more trees along Easton Drive that are beginning to encroach on the road, which would further impede the flow of two-way traffic.

In response, city officials may seek to formalize a tree inspection system that would objectively analyze trees and delegate removal and preservation decisions to the Beautification Commission and the Traffic, Safety and Parking Commission.

However, defining a threshold between whether to leave a tree or cut it down is a gray area, City Manager Jim Nantell said. And drafting formal criteria would take months, he said.

“It would have to look at external factors like its impact on the roadway and pedestrian access and impacts on infrastructure like whether it affects sewage or a storm drainage,” he said.

Monday night’s debate swung between comical and contentious, and resulted in no decision on Tom’s fate. With a split council, it became clear Nagel would be the deciding vote. Instead, she advocated polling area residents on turning Easton Drive into a one-way street, which would allow oversize trees such as Tom to stay.

Nantell said in most other cities, it would have been cut down long ago.

“But it’s just that in this case, there is a strong value for protecting all trees,” he said.

Jennifer Pfaff, a resident pushing for Tom’s preservation, suggested the city acquire an independent “tree czar” because the issue may become political.

“As soon as you get personal opinions in there, it becomes a problem,” she said.

Other tree sympathizers lined up Monday night to rally for Tom.

“It’s funny because all of my buddies can’t believe I’m a tree-hugger,” Easton Drive resident Michael Dillon said.

bfoley@examiner.com

Bay Area NewsLocal

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