The Coastal Post - December, 1995

Trees: Beauty And The Beast


In the aftermath of the Point Reyes National Seashore fire, many Marinites are looking at the trees that grace our properties in a different light. What we admire as an object of beauty can threaten our homes and our personal safety.

Fire experts tell us that homes most likely to survive a conflagration have "defensible space," generally defined as an area 30 to 100 feet around a home that is cleared of brush, debris, and highly flammable trees. But how do we go about cutting down trees on our property in towns that have so-called "tree ordinances"? Is the goal of preserving trees at cross-purposes with the goal of fire prevention? The short answer is: not necessarily.

Some tree ordinances, such as Corte Madera's (newly enacted but now challenged) and Tiburon's specifically address fire hazard as one factor to be considered for tree removal. Larkspur's ordinance actually allows homeowners to bypass the standard permit approval process if the fire department deems a highly flammable tree (e.g., certain species of pine, eucalyptus and acacia) to be a fire hazard. Mill Valley's recently adopted ordinance allows officials to consider whether cutting down certain trees will protect public health and safety by "reducing or eliminating fire danger" when issuing a permit. The most recent draft of the Marin county ordinance, which, if adopted, would affect the unincorporated areas of Marin such as Point Reyes, says no permit is required to cut down certain highly flammable trees "within a defensible space (30 to 100 feet around a house) as determined by a Fire Inspector."

Other ordinances do not specifically address the issue of fire safety. However, most cities, such as Ross, Fairfax, San Anselmo and Sausalito, provide general criteria which arguably apply to cutting down trees that pose a fire hazard. For example, in these cities, one consideration for cutting down a protected tree is its "proximity to existing or proposed structures." Another "catch-all" consideration found in these ordinances is whether the tree removal would be a "good forestry practice."

Keep in mind that many ordinances regulate removal of certain kinds of trees, sometimes referred to as "heritage trees" and do not affect removal of other trees, brush and shrubs. To further complicate matters, one town's "heritage tree" may be considered "undesirable" by a neighboring town.

Because violation of your local tree ordinance may result in criminal and civil penalties, including fines, costs of restoration, community service and even imprisonment, it is important to understand your town's ordinance before you start cutting. City officials, fire department inspectors certified tree surgeons, arborists and attorneys knowledgeable in tree law can help you avoid costly mistakes.

Public officials that are considering adopting or revising tree ordinances should include provisions that allow landowners to create defensible space with a minimum of bureaucratic red tape and expense. The goal of preserving trees must be balanced with the equally important goal of preventing fires, so that the beauty—and safety— that Marinites seek is secured.

Mill Valley resident Barri Kaplan Bonapart is a principal of San Francisco law firm Fabris, Burgess and Ring, where she specializes in tree/neighbor law and commercial litigation.