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City to cap dollars spent on tree care
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Who is responsible – the city or homeowner – for the pruning or removal of a tree that the city had planted within a public utility easement (PUE) but outside of the street tree easement?

That question was debated at Monday’s Ceres City Council Study Session.

Former city worker Mike Riddell raised hackles over what he called a new interpretation made by Public Works Director Toby Wells of the city’s old Street Tree Ordinance.

Riddell recently asked the city to remove the mistletoe strangling a city-planted street tree growing in his Kinser Road yard but was told by Wells that the city is not responsible for a tree planted on private property under the wording of the ordinance. That was news to Riddell, who planted many street trees during his service with the city. Riddell said that the city has historically cared for street trees, even if planted outside of the planting easement. Riddell, who now works for the city of Riverbank, said residents like him always pruned their own trees up to the point of what can be reached from the ground but that city street division crews or tree maintenance contractors cared for limbs above that. Wells said his staff needed to stop doing that based on the wording of the ordinance and limits of the city budget on tree care.

“I’m curious why we are at a study session asking if we’re going to reduce service when the service has already been reduced,” Riddell told the council. He said the city policy had been in force “until Mr. Wells made the decision that they’re no longer city trees.”

When Wells insisted that the staff is only following the ordinance as written, Riddell fired back at Wells: “You’re following your interpretation. That ordinance has been interpreted by what three or four different public works directors and city engineers in the last 30 years and it’s always been a city tree.”

Riddell said the city should notify all residents if there has been a break with past practice dating back 27 years rather than let residents know when a request for service is made.

Wells said the city’s past practice does not jive with the way the city’s ordinance is written.
“The ordinance is crystal clear, past practice is not,” commented Wells.
Council members decided to keep the city responsible for the care of trees planted six to 10 feet behind a sidewalk but amend the ordinance to reflect that policy. “Good luck,” commented Wells, who said reconciling practice and policy would be tough.

In many cases, said Wells, it has been difficult to ascertain if trees planted in older subdivisions dating to the 1970s or earlier -- where trees are pushing up sidewalks and curbs – were planted by a resident or the city. Wells admitted being surprised to learn that mulberry trees – which uproot sidewalks and are messy – were on the city’s accepted list of street tree varieties decades ago.

The council was asked to weigh in on the city’s annual tree budget, with Wells warning that demand will only increase as older trees mature and do more damage. The city is quickly tapping out its current budget of $100,000 for tree care. Waiting for city action are 97 trees for tree trimming and 54 requests for removal.

City Deputy Director of Public Works Jeremy Damas said the $100,000 allotment only takes care of 200 trees but told the council “I bet we’re pushing 500 this year.”

Delete - Merge UpWith over three months left in the fiscal year, the city has spent about $73,000 on tree care through its contractor, West Coast Arborists. Damas said the pruning of a tree costs $300 to $900 depending on trunk diameter.
An individual may remove a city-planted tree by city approval. Wells said most requests are granted if the tree presents an issue of care for the city.

The city, said Wells, has in recent years made a strong push to populate Ceres with trees as a designated Tree City USA but noted the “push comes with a cost and effort and we don’t have that ability.” He said the city must find balance.

Mayor Chris Vierra said he wants the city to keep up its existing policy but cap the amount spent each year at $100,000.
“We’ll take care of them up to the amount we can afford,” said Vierra, who said the matter comes down to priorities “when the general fund is being hammered as hard as it is. It becomes a fundamental point. Do you put officers on the streets or do you trim the trees? These are difficult decisions we’ve had to make.”

Vice Mayor Ken Lane agree on the $100,000 allotment, saying “we spend that and go back and put people on the list for the following year if you can’t get it all done.”

Tree issues are not expected to be a problem for the city in newer housing tracts, such as Eastgate, which have landscaping strips between the sidewalk and curb. Trees planted in those strips are the responsibility of the adjacent homeowner under the state highways code, despite the city having it planted.

Trees planted in Eastgate are expected to cause the least damage to cement work, said Wells, because of the installation of drainage tubes to contain root systems.