Want to remove a tree in San Jose? It’ll cost you thousands.
Willow Glen resident Ron Palermo stands in front of the young maple tree that replaced one that split in two in 2017. Palermo says the city charged him $2400 for the removal. Photo by Carina Woudenberg.

    San Jose takes pride in its trees. So much so that if a resident wants to cut down a healthy large treeton their property it could cost them more than $2,000 to do so.

    Compared to other large cities in California, that cost is high. San Francisco charges its residents roughly a third of that amount for one to three trees that are removed as part of a construction or development project. Otherwise, a non-construction related tree removal in San Francisco will set its residents back only $348 — a cost that can cover up to three trees as well, according to public guidelines put out by San Francisco Public Works.

    In Oakland, a city bestowed with a tree-themed moniker, removing a tree costs a little more than $400 for both non-development and development related trees, according to city documents. There are additional costs for permit appeals, but they don’t climb anywhere near the $2,000 mark.

    San Jose city officials defended the higher costs. They said the costs are justified by the fact that staff time spent on tree removals is not covered by the city’s general fund, unlike other cities. Tree removal permits in San Jose are required only for “ordinance size” trees — those with a circumference of 38 inches — not smaller ones, unless they are street trees.

    “Our planning division is cost recovery,” said San Jose Planning Review Division Manager Sylvia Do. “In the recession, the general fund was a very, very limited pot of money.”

    The fees are intended to cover staff hours spent reviewing applications and notifying the public about trees slated for removal, Do said. Some “adjustments” were made in the past year to streamline the process, she added, and to ensure tree removals don’t eat up so much City Hall staff time.

    “Trees used to be a pretty considerable part of planning director hearing agendas,” said Do.

    Today, instead of holding a hearing on every tree removal application — a number averaging around 30 per month — each tree will have a notice placed on its trunk notifying nearby residents of its impending demise. The city’s planning division also mails postcards to the tree’s neighbors to let them know about the plans. A hearing is held only if someone wishes to protest the removal of the tree — otherwise, it will be approved.

    Do says hearings on trees are far less frequent since the city changed its policy.

    Do acknowledged complaints about the higher fees — especially from single-family home owners — but added that the city gives careful consideration to removing something that carries a host of environmental benefits, including better air quality and erosion prevention. Removing diseased trees, for example, will only cost residents roughly $200, but a healthy tree requires more justification.

    Cutting down a tree because you don’t like raking leaves isn’t a good reason, Do said.

    Ron Palermo said a Norway Maple in front of his Willow Glen home split in two in 2017 while he was on vacation.

    Palermo says his brother, who is a general contractor, could have found someone to remove and haul the tree for $1,100 — less than half of the $2,500 he would have owed the city. After some negotiation, the city knocked off $100 and charged him $2,400 for the job.

    Palermo paid another $400 to purchase and replace the Maple tree. The Willow Glen resident says he’s annoyed by the high costs.

    “They’re a little over-nutty about this tree stuff,” Palermo said, adding that his neighbors intentionally cut down trees on Friday afternoons — when city officials aren’t paying attention — to avoid costs and hassle.

    Claudia Shope stands in front of the repaired sidewalk she says the city made her pay for after a tree destroyed it. Photo by Carina Woudenberg.

    San Jose resident Claudia Shope has her own tree-related gripes with the city. Shope said the city planted Sycamore trees in her neighborhood that damaged the sidewalk in front of her home.

    Shope said she was forced to pay more than $2,000 for the sidewalk repair. She continues to fight City Hall on the charge.

    San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis says the city’s stricter tree removal process stems from dozens of unauthorized tree removals in Willow Glen dating back to the early 2000s.

    Khamis is a proponent of tree preservation and says he’s been involved with events held by Our City Forest and has planted hundreds of trees in his district in recent years. The councilmember said he removed a 20-inch tree from his own yard because it was sick. Though not required to get a permit based on the size, Khamis said he alerted neighbors about his plans.

    City officials devoted 20 hours a week on tree removal hearings before the process was streamlined, Khamis said. Despite the changes, the lawmaker still has his eye on protecting the natural resource.

    “We still want people to not destroy trees if possible,” he said.

    For more information about San Jose’s tree removal rules, visit www.sanjoseca.gov/treepermit.

    Contact Carina Woudenberg at [email protected] or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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