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End of the Trees, End of an Era

The Mill Valley City Council voted 5-0 to uphold the Planning Commission’s decision to remove five trees at the corner of E. Blithedale and Camino Alto. The decision on May 4, marks the end of Mill Valley as a progressive, pro-environment community.

The Freeman Park Neighborhood Association took the lead for a pro-tree, pro-neighborhood, pro-community approach, but the council prioritized individual property rights and the economy.

We want to thank everyone who sent letters in support of our appeal: The Sierra Club-Marin Group, Sustainable Mill Valley, Watershed Alliance of Marin (WAM), and the letters of expert testimony from environmentalist Nona Dennis (the trees are not a fire risk), arborist Susan Nawbary (measurable environmental benefit of the trees), and poet Jane Hirshfield (aesthetics). Letters in the staff packet ran 5:1 in support of our appeal to deny the tree removal permit. During the hearing itself, 2 callers spoke in favor of removal; 14 spoke in favor of our appeal.

The Applicant, staff, and a rep from the Planning Commission had 35 minutes to make their case for removal, including restatement of misleading and false claims. Freeman Park Neighborhood Association, the Appellant who paid a $500 filing fee for a new hearing, was allotted just 15. Their key points addressed Municipal Code 20.67.110: A tree removal permit may be denied if any one or more of the following findings is made:

The five minutes of rebuttal time addressed an Updated Resolution, 40-lines of new code and findings, distributed within the 72-hour legal limit, but after the Planning Commission hearing and after the deadline for public comment emails to be included in the staff packet.

Without asking a single question, the City Council sided with the staff-backed applicant who argued that property rights and Mill Valley’s economic future depend on revitalizing the corner with a landscape plan that creates visibility for a new pizza chain. Mature trees with environmental benefits are out of style.

The Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, a proponent of removal, announced the decision on their blog.

This is an edited version of our response.

The City Council vote on tree removal marks the end of Mill Valley as a progressive, pro-environment community. Urban Carmel is quoted, “The issue has been mis-framed.” He’s right about mis-framing, but not as a “cut the trees” or “save the trees” issue. The City Council turned a blind eye to another option that would have started with a denial of the tree removal permit.

The MV Tree Policy protects multiples of three or more trees, regardless of heritage status, to be cut in any twelve- month period. A pro-environment City Council would have joined with the Neighborhood Association to make a case for saving two trees.

They might have said to the applicant,

“Yes, you have property rights to cut down the dead tree and two others, but our community has rights, too, expressed in the first goal of the General Plan: Protect and enhance the natural beauty and small-town character of Mill Valley. We have enforcement in the city's Municipal Code.

"Remove three trees, but you’ll have to wait a year before you cut down the other two. Consider the community reaction when they see two, healthy 50-foot trees come down to accommodate the landscape/marketing plan for a new pizza place envisioned by San Francisco food industry vets who abandoned LaBoulangerie in favor of a down-scaled affordable pizza chain."

City Council members might have continued.

"We’re not going to tell you what to do, but you might consider incorporating two healthy trees into your landscape plan. Mill Valley already has seven pizza places with loyal customers. Do yourself and the community a favor. Take less financial risk during these uncertain times."

Residents lost a chance for a win/win outcome, lost the chance to use city policy to balance property rights and community rights. We stand to lose four, healthy fifty-foot trees—the symbol of small-town character—for an urbanized intersection selling pizza.


trees, environment, economy, property rights