Officials save backyard pine tree from the ax

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A spindly pine tree standing all alone in a tiny backyard became an official landmark Tuesday in San Francisco, a city that boasts such picturesque sights as the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf.

City leaders voted unanimously to grant the status to a Norfolk pine hybrid after it was championed by residents who said it gives their neighborhood its beauty and a sense of home.

The owner of the property where it stands wanted to tear it down. His lawyer said the 100-foot-tall tree was dangerous and too large for the small parcel.

“It’s a good example of a community standing up to protect the environment,” Eric Mar, a member of the Board of Supervisors, said after the vote.

The tree is not common in San Francisco and its age is in dispute, with proponents saying it was planted more than a century ago and others saying it only dates back to the 1940s.

Neighbors and others have been trying to save it for a year, saying it’s an important part of the landscape. A biology professor submitted testimony that it probably provides a resting spot for raptors and other birds making their way to Golden Gate Park.

Attorney Barri Bonapart, who specializes in law involving trees and represents homeowner Dale Rogers, said the tree is an ordinary pine that poses problems for the home’s infrastructure.

She said before the board action that granting landmark status would be a severe infringement on private property rights.

Rogers did not speak at the board meeting and could not be reached for comment.

“There is no question the ordinance has been misused and misapplied,” Bonapart said. “This is the wrong tree in the wrong place.”

The saga began last year when Rogers cut down three trees in his backyard — two palms and another pine — as part of a plan to redevelop his property.

Alarmed that the owner might cut down the remaining pine, a couple living in a house in the backyard and another couple living nearby got a restraining order to stop its removal and began the process to get the tree landmark status over the owner’s objections.

The Urban Forestry Council, which recommends landmark status to city leaders, declined to nominate the tree on a tied vote in October. Then in March, the council reconsidered and granted landmark status after substantial public testimony.

“I was very moved by the community concern for the tree,” vice-chairwoman Carla Short said. “It’s a very striking tree; you can see it from lots of different places in the neighborhood.”

Short said 18 trees or groves of trees — prized for their rarity or historic significance — have landmark status in San Francisco. Six are on private property, often in back or side yards, she said.

They include an impressive Moreton Bay fig tree in the city’s Mission District and a coast live oak in residential Noe Valley. A giant sequoia near the Castro District received landmark status over the owner’s objections, Short said.

A person who removes a landmark tree without a permit or harms it could face criminal and civil penalties.

Vanessa Ruotolo, a musician and neighbor who has been leading the charge for the Norfolk pine hybrid with her husband, said the tree and its visiting songbirds give the neighborhood its beauty and music.

“We’re thankful that the tree was given its due process,” she said.
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