Passionate crowd packs tree hearing 

It’s perhaps no surprise that one towering eucalyptus has caused so much uproar in a place nicknamed The City of Trees.

A 100-year-old, stalwart Tasmanian blue gum tree located at the corner of Easton Drive and Cabrillo Avenue — dubbed "Tom" by some residents — has polarized the community, pitting some concerned about safety against those who take issue with Burlingame’s perceived lack of interest in the city’s trademark trees.

After several meetings of the Traffic, Safety and Parking Commission, Beautification Commission and Library Board, the Burlingame City Council decided last month to uphold the Beautification Commission’s decision to remove Tom, citing traffic safety problems with his formidable roots stretching further into the roadway.

But that decision sparked spirited debate among several Burlingame residents, including Rich Grogan, who helped lead a charge against Tom’s premature removal. Residents have rallied behind the cause, by naming the tree, posting signs on its trunk and setting up an e-mail address for it.

The controversy spurred Mayor Terry Nagel to ask for an additional public hearing, held Tuesday night, to allow residents to share their concerns and compromises that would allow Tom to live on. The council did not make a decision by press time.

Assistant Public Works Director Syed Murtuza noted at the start of Tuesday’s meeting that the issue centered on one tree, not citywide policy regarding street tress. Nonetheless, several residents feared that removing Tom would set a dangerous precedent that would result in Burlingame losing its character.

Murtuza presented a range of options with various pricetags, including realigning the roadway; replacing the tree and repairing the road; preserving the tree and making Easton a one-way street; or leaving the tree as is.

A range of comments came in to match the options presented. Some residents, including Grogan, said the figures presented were not accurate. Other residents, including Dan Porter, thought safety came first.

"Human life is far more precious than that of a tree," Porter said.

Resident Fiona Hamilton, who acknowledged that the tree might present safety concerns, thinks no tree should be removed unless it presents a danger to the community, an evaluation that is the center of the debate.

"I hate to see a tree taken down," Hamilton said. "There’s a running joke in our family that if a tree somehow killed me, my husband still wouldn’t be allowed to chop it down."

City Manager Jim Nantell, who lived on Easton for several years, said he wasn’t very surprised by the outpouring of support. The tree, after all, is healthy, and the city normally only removes trees if they’re diseased, he said.

But while there haven’t been accidents at that intersection, Nantell said the city is just taking preventative measures by removing the tree. Its roots have extended 7.5 feet into the roadway, forcing some cars traveling west on Easton to swerve into the eastbound lane. Furthermore, the roots could also cause expensive damage to sewer and storm drainage pipes, he said.

"It’s just an unsafe way to run traffic," Nantell said.

This isn’t the first disagreement over city trees in recent years. Many took issue with Caltrans’ perceived tardy replanting of eucalyptus trees on El Camino Real and what some considered slow progress by Burlingame to replace trees near the former Greyhound Bus depot on Howard Avenue. When one resident requested removal of some pittosporum trees that were flaring up his allergies last spring, some residents again came out to say that cutting them down was too drastic a step.

E-mail Tara Ramroop at tramroop@examiner.com.

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