I know it seems like I am stuck on this subject, but I just keep finding more examples of government finding creative ways to limit the use of private property.  In Monterey, California, we have the best example yet of the tree police, or, if you prefer, land use regulation run amok, arboreal division.  This story appeared in the Los Angeles Times on December 24, 2006, and was subsequently republished in papers across the country through the Associated Press.

San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey was part of a mission established by Father Junipero Serra in 1770.  According to theLos Angeles Times article, it is believed to be the oldest functioning church in California, completed in 1794.  A mere 160 years or so later, in the 1950s, four redwood trees were planted on the church grounds.

You can probably guess what’s coming.  No, the trees aren’t in danger of falling on the church.  The trees are shading the church so as to prevent the church’s natural sandstone walls from drying after it rains.  Worse, apparently, the roots of the trees have invaded the foundation of the church.

Note that, according to the news account, the trees were planted.  In other words, these particular trees are not native to that site.  That fact did not, however, stop the “urban forester” for the city of Monterey from referring to them as “native” trees that “have some serious standing in the community.”


If you remember my earlier writings on this subject, you may have already figured out why there is a city-employed “urban forester” involved in this scenario.  The city of Monterey has a “Preservation of Trees and Shrubs” ordinance, which says that “no person shall remove, damage, or relocate any tree on any private property within the City unless the City Forester has issued a permit.”  And how big, you may ask, must a tree be in order to require a permit for removal or relocation?  The ordinance contains the following definition: “(a) trees located on a vacant private parcel that are more than two inches (2”) in diameter when measured at a point four feet six inches (4’6”) above the tree’s natural grade; and, (b) trees located on a private, developed parcel that are more than six inches (6”) when measured at a point four feet six inches (4’6”) above the tree’s natural grade.”


This means that in Monterey, a property owner must get the city’s permission to remove or relocate any tree with a trunk of six inches or more (or only two inches if the property is vacant), even if the property owner planted the tree, and no matter what the reason for the removal or relocation.  The example of San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey puts an even finer point on it: a church can’t cut down trees planted on its property, even though the trees may cause the eventual destruction of an irreplaceable historic (and still operating) church.

The “urban forester” sees the conflict between protecting the church and protecting the trees as “kind of a dilemma.”  Really?  Fifty year old trees versus a church that has been operating for over 200 years?  Well, after all, it is his job, according to the city ordinance,  to “assure preservation of trees and replacement of trees when removal is unavoidable,” although replacing these trees apparently isn’t an option that the forester finds acceptable.

So what is the forester’s solution?  According to the news item, he has recommended that only the two trees closest to the church be cut down, and that the roots of the remaining trees be controlled by pruning them (presumably the roots, not the branches), digging a trench between the roots and the church, and filling the trench with impenetrable material.

Who would pay for those measures, you may ask?  Why the property owner, of course.  If the property owner (i.e. the church) prefers, it can appeal the forester’s recommendation to the city’s architectural review committee, then to the city council, a process that could take months.

How are property owners likely to react to an ordinance like the one in Monterey?  My advice would be this: don’t plant any trees where you might want to build something someday, or if you do, cut them down before they get too large (especially if your property is vacant!). Otherwise you will have to contend with the “urban forester,” who is likely to deny you permission to remove the trees, no matter what it is you want to build.  If trees planted in the 1950s can’t be removed to protect a 210 year old church, then how could any new building possibly be important enough to justify removal of any tree, no matter how insignificant?