Steep fees for felled trees — if Belmont has its way

The city has filed a lawsuit against three property owners and a tree maintenance company for allegedly chopping down 33 trees without a permit, as one official called it the largest wholesale, unauthorized removal of trees in recent city memory.

Community Development Director Carlos de Melo said the tree hacking violates the city’s tree code. The trees were on a long, narrow strip of land sandwiched between El Camino Real and the Caltrain tracks a few blocks north of Ralston Avenue. The city is seeking more than $60,000 in damages for the alleged violation.

But the property owners say they were simply trying to comply with a Fire Department mandate to reduce fire hazards and nuisances on the land, and passed blame along to the company that did the work on the land.

Property owner Christopher Harney, who was named in the lawsuit filed last week along with partners Martina and Thomas Murphy and tree maintenance company NorCal Tree Care Inc., said the owners annually remove brush on the land in response to calls from the Fire Department about fire hazards. This year, they decided to do a more thorough clearing of the land, and hired NorCal Tree Care to take down small trees and bushes, he said.

He acknowledged that some larger trees were removed, but said the owners knew nothing about it until they were contacted by the city. He said NorCal Tree Care must have misinterpreted the city’s tree code when they were deciding which trees to remove.

“By no means were we maliciously clear-cutting the area, we were just trying to abate a nuisance and a fire hazard,” he said. “It wasn’t our mistake.”

Now, he said, he and his partners are suing NorCal Tree Care’s insurance company to get the money to pay the city for the fines.

NorCal Tree Care did not return several calls for comment Monday.

The city has a stringent — and pricey — tree ordinance, which charges property owner as much as $4,000 per tree to remove trees from their own land, depending on their size and species.

According to the lawsuit, 16 of the chopped trees were “protected,” a description given to trees of certain species and diameters. De Melo acknowledged that the city’s tree ordinance is steep compared to other cities’ but said the community “prides itself” on its trees.

“In Belmont, you can’t just go whacking trees because you don’t like them,” he said.

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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