San Jose collects developer fees, but slow to replace trees
An aerial view of San Jose and some of its 1.6 million trees. Photo courtesy of San Jose.

    San Jose is set to receive a considerable amount of cash to replace several hundred trees that will be ripped up to make way for two industrial developments.

    Roughly $1.1 million in tree fees will be paid by two developers that will more than double the current amount in the city’s tree removal coffers. As the number of development projects ramp up and San Jose strengthens its urban forest program, critics worry the city can’t replace its lost trees fast enough.

    District 3 Councilmember Omar Torres is disheartened by the shrinking tree coverage, and said collaboration is needed from the city, residents and developers to solve it. Torres has worked to highlight the inequities in the city’s tree coverage, and pushed for the city to remove some pavement to plant more trees to cut down on excessive heat in urban areas.

    “It is imperative that development projects in our district also play their part in adding to the tree canopy. We must emphasize the integration of green infrastructure and the incorporation of trees into urban design plans,” Torres told San José Spotlight.

    The money will arrive as the city grapples with how to fix its broken tree management program, which aims to steward San Jose’s 1.6 million trees and ensure the health of the city’s urban forest. But the city has struggled to function properly, which has led to shrinking tree canopy and disproportionate lack of tree cover in the city’s poorer areas that historically suffer from a lack of green spaces.

    An internal audit in January found San Jose has woefully mismanaged its urban forest, including not tracking or verifying that developers replant trees when required and errors and inconsistencies were common in tree removal permit reviews. Much of the money sat largely unspent since city oversight of in-lieu fees first started in 2018.

    Additionally, the city’s tree replacement ratio for developers is based on numbers of trees and did not consider the size of a tree’s canopy cover.

    Rhonda Berry, CEO of Our City Forest, a nonprofit focused on growing and maintaining the urban forest, said more focus needs to be placed on preserving existing trees, especially mature ones. She said the city should be more stringent with developers who propose removing them in the first place.

    “Trees absorb dangerous air particulates that we would otherwise inhale, putting us at greater risk for asthma, related respiratory illness, heart disease and cancer,” she told San José Spotlight.

    Major projects like a data center from STACK Infrastructure that will result in the removal of 156 trees, and Bridge Industrial’s warehouse project that will cut down 561 trees, are being approved across the city at a steady pace.

    From 2012 to 2018, San Jose went from having about 15.3% of tree coverage to 13.5% in 2018, a loss of more than 1,700 acres of tree canopy, city reports said. If the trend holds, the city could be at about 11.7% coverage by 2024, and less than 10% in 2030.

    In response to this projection, the city produced a community forest management plan last year, though an early draft of that report faced harsh criticism for lacking key input and information. In January, the council approved changes to address the myriad of issues with the city’s tree management program highlighted in the audit.

    The city now requires half of tree replacement fees to be spent in the district where a development project cleared trees, with the other half going toward citywide tree replacement, with a focus on addressing equity of tree coverage.

    Last year, San Jose leaders also approved increasing the funding by $3.5 million for its tree management budget across multiple departments, now at roughly $5.7 million, according to city spokespeople. It includes growth for seven new employees and more money for tree planting.

    The city’s current goal is 20% tree coverage by 2051, but it’s unclear if that’s realistic. The report said to reach that mark the city would need to plant about 4,500 trees with a 50-foot-wide canopy spread every year for 30 years.

    District 4 Councilmember David Cohen’s district has the least canopy coverage of any district in the city.

    Cohen’s office is running a campaign to plant 1,000 trees in the district within 1,000 days since April 2022, and has already planted more than 200, he said, with the help of Our City Forest and volunteers. He said the city’s recent moves to address the shrinking canopy reflect a serious commitment to the issue.

    “I think that we’re aware of the problem, we have put a lot of time and effort into solving it, so I’m optimistic that it will make a difference,” Cohen told San José Spotlight. “But as it is with all of these long-term issues, it takes time to begin to see the fruits of it.”

    The San Jose City Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee will hear an update on the progress made toward addressing issues in the audit on June 5.

    Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

    Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

    Leave a Reply