The Trees of San Carlos: What You Can and Can’t Do With Them.

February 8, 2012

Not All Trees Are Created Equal.

Trees are a big part of the landscape and the personality of San Carlos.  There's a whole neighborhood and blog named after one particular species of oak tree, but for some reason that name seems to escape me at the moment…  Anyhow, there has even been a big discussion about removing 23 of the eucalyptus trees on the perimeter of Burton Park because of the declining health of the trees, and the potential safety hazard that they pose.  It's hard to imagine how different Burton Park will look when those trees are gone!

So it's no surprise that one of the most frequent questions I hear from prospective home buyers actually has nothing to do with the house itself.  It's often about the trees that are on the property that they're interested in.  Can the trees be removed?  Or, when is a permit required to remove them?

Size Matters, But…

San Carlos has always had pretty stringent controls in place to regulate the removal of trees, even on private properties.   And for good reason — trees are a big part of what makes this town so beautiful, so the preservation of them is of utmost importance.  I was always under the impression that the size of the tree was the primary factor in determining whether a permit is required to remove a healthy tree from a property (obviously, different rules apply to a diseased or dead tree.)   It turns out that this is not necessarily the case.

When I researched this topic in the City of San Carlos Municipal Code, the guideline wasn't spelled out very clearly.   So I posed the question to the great folks in the Planning Department at the City of San Carlos, and I'm glad that I did – because they are in the process of updating the rules and regulations of tree removal in San Carlos.   And while size certainly matters, it's not the sole factor in determining whether a tree can be removed from your property or not — it's far more involved than that.

According to Gavin Moynahan, Assistant Planner for the City of San Carlos, here are the current rules for the removal of trees in San Carlos:

I.  The following trees shall not be classified as protected trees regardless of size.  No permit is required for removal of trees on the following list:

  • Bailey, Green or Black Acacia: a. baileyana, a. decurrens or a. melanoxylon
  • Tree of Heaven: Ailanthus altissima
  • Fruit trees of any kind
  • Monterey Pine: Pinus radiate
  • Eucalyptus: Eucalyptus globulus (unless a founder tree or group of trees)

II.  The following list of indigenous Heritage trees require a permit for removal.  Please note that there are specific sizes that relate to the various species.

  • Aesculus californica (buckeye) with a single stem or multiple stems touching each other at 48 inches above natural grade and measuring 30 inches in circumference.
  • Arbutus menziesii (madrone) with a single stem or multiple stems touching each other at 48 inches above natural grade and measuring 30 inches in circumference.
  • Quercus agrifolia (coast live oak) of more than 30 inches in circumference.
  • Quercus lobata (valley oak) of more than 30 inches in circumference.
  • Quercus douglasii (blue oak) of more than 24 inches in circumference.
  • Quercus wislizenii (interior live oak) of more than 24 inches in circumference.
  • Sequoia sempervirens (redwood) of more than 72 inches in circumference.
  • Umbellularia californica (California bay laurel) with a single stem or multiple stems touching each other at 48” above natural grade and measuring 30 inches in circumference.
  • Community of trees;
  • Founders tree: Any tree known to have been planted prior to the City’s 1925 incorporation.
  • Tree so designated by the City Council, based upon findings that the particular tree is unique and of importance to the public due to its unusual age, appearance, location or other factors.

III.  The following trees require permits based on their size and location.  Permits are required for trees that measure greater than 36” in circumference measured 48” from grade and fit the following two categories:

  • Public Tree. Any tree located within any street median, City park or other parcel of publicly owned property, including any tree located in a City maintained park strip on Laurel Street, and San Carlos Avenue (1100 and 1200 blocks only).
  • Significant Tree. Any tree that is 36 inches in circumference (or more), (which is approximately 11.5 inches in diameter), outside of bark, measured at 48 inches above natural grade.

Tree removal permits subject to arborist review generally take 10 business days to complete.  Please ensure that all relevant information is included on the application prior to submittal.


First, a point of clarification is in order.  Sections I and III may seem contradictory at first glance — On one hand, there are a group of trees that don't require a permit for removal, regardless of their size (Section I).   But in Section III under “Significant Tree”, the regulations seem to contradict Section I — For example,  if you had Monterey Pine in your yard with a circumference greater than 36″, would you need a permit to remove it?   The answer is that the trees outlined in Section I are exempt from any of the permit requirements.  So the correct answer is that no permit is required to remove this tree.

A big thanks to both Chris Valley and Gavin Moynahan for their contribution to this post.  If you have any further questions about the tree ordinance in San Carlos, your best bet is to shoot Gavin an email with your question.

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  1. Racquel on February 8, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    Yes, it cost $247 for an arborist to review/inspect our application to remove a huge Lombardy Poplar tree from our tiny backyard. It surprised me as well, that sheer size was not the only determining factor. The other surprise is the 10 days to process. The city apparently contracts the work out for an arborist to review and get back to the city with its recommendation. I made the request last Monday. So technically today would be Day 10, but it appears, I will be waiting for another week.

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