Tree and Stump Removal

The City of Palo Alto manages approximately 36,000 trees on City property including streets, parks, and facilities. The Urban Forestry Section provides all required care (using both City and contract resources) for public trees during the tree’s lifespan including planting, pruning, line clearing and tree removal.  Acknowledging the ultimate decline of a tree, eventual removal of a public tree will be necessary.  All Urban Forestry Section staff actions are directed toward building and enhancing the urban forest, and public trees are removed only when necessary as a last resort.

In wildland areas, forests follow the natural life processes.  The trees of the natural forest grow old, contract diseases and eventually die.  After the tree falls on the forest floor, it eventually decays and supplies nutrients back into the soil.  This self-sustaining natural process, unfortunately, cannot take place because of the nature and conditions of the urban forest.  The Palo Alto urban forest needs to be conscientiously managed in order to protect the health, safety and property of the residents and businesses.

A current list of tree removal locations including a brief reason for the removal can be found here: Tree Removal List.  If you have further questions, please call  the Urban Forestry Section at 650-496-5953. 

Reasons for Tree Removal
Approximately 1-2 percent of public trees are removed annually.  The decision to remove a public tree is based upon the condition of the tree in question.  The primary reasons for tree removal are: the tree is dead, dying, diseased, or is considered hazardous.  It is important to note that hazardous conditions may exist above and/or below ground and may include significant root, trunk or crown decay, split trunks and crotches, and large dead limbs.  In addition, trees may be identified for removal when they have declined beyond the point of recovery and are no longer meeting the functional requirements of a street tree (i.e., providing shade canopy).  Typically, a tree with 30 percent or less of its foliage remaining would meet this criterion.  Fatally diseased trees (e.g., Dutch Elm Disease) may be removed before they meet the primary or secondary thresholds in order to prevent the spread of disease to healthy trees.  In some rare cases when a tree is creating significant, burdensome litter (such as a fruiting Ginkgo tree), the Urban Forester may determine that the tree is a removal candidate and replace it with a more suitable species.  Less commonly, trees may be identified for removal when unavoidable construction work will immediately compromise the stability or viability of the tree.

Removal Process
Trees that are removal candidates are identified by requests from residents or businesses, through the development process (as described below in Private Development Projects), through routine field work by Urban Forestry Section staff, or by other City staff or contract employees.  All potential public tree removals are inspected and may be approved by Urban Forestry Section staff arborists (Urban Forester, Arborist,  Project Managers, and Tree Trim-Line Clear Lead).  Inspections may require multiple site visits and are often a collaborative effort between staff members. 

Once a tree becomes a removal candidate, staff take several steps to provide public notice prior to any trees being removed.  The tree is first marked with a red or orange paint dot on the street side of the trunk.  Written or telephone contact is made with the owner and/or tenant (if not the original requestor) of the property adjacent to the tree.  The written or telephone contact is documented in the tree record database.  Additional properties are notified when the tree is located very near the side property lines.  When applicable, written or telephone contact is made with the original requestor.  After notifications are completed, tree removal lists are compiled from the database and submitted to the Director of Public Works and City Manager's office for approval.  After approval, a fourteen-day Tree Removal Notice is also posted on the tree prior to removal.  A replacement tree is planted where the site is appropriate.  If the removal includes a significant tree or a number of trees, a letter is also sent to the affected neighborhood association.  In an emergency or when an immediate hazard exists, Urban Forestry Section staff have authority to remove a tree without approval or notification.

Private Development Projects
Proposed private building projects with potential negative impacts to publicly-owned trees are subject to the Planning Department's permitting and public hearing process which includes the Public Works Urban Forester and/or Arborist's inspection and approval.  Removals caused by private projects are considered a taking from the public treescape.  Trees that fall under this category are not permitted for removal unless the final planting plan results in an overall improvement to the public treescape.  Typically, healthy and viable trees are protected through these projects.  Occasionally, removals are permitted to facilitate an improvement to the public treescape.  To be considered an improvement the project must include at least one of the following criteria:

  • Removal and replacement of a tree or trees that are hazardous or in poor health.
  • The proposed planting configuration results in a substantial improvement to the public treescape (i.e., an increase in tree numbers in viable sites or improvements to existing planting sites).
  • The applicant shall submit their arborist report for PW Arborist review.
  • Contingent upon approval of the arborist's report the by the PW Arborist, the applicant shall be responsible for all public outreach and posting. Signage will be provided by Public Works.

Stump Removal
Stump removal occurs after the tree has been removed to the ground.  Because of the specialized nature of the work and the equipment required, the City contracts with a private company to remove stumps.  For cost efficiency, the project manager waits for an accumulation of stumps before the removals proceed, and stump removal may be delayed for up to six months after tree removal.  Once the appropriate quantity of stumps are accumulated, a list is compiled and the contractor will commence removal.  The contractor will temporarily remove all public and private improvements within the stump removal site and will remove all stump and roots using specialized grinding equipment.  The hole created by stump removal is filled to grade with native soil and mixed with the ground stump chips.  This prepares the area around the stump for replanting.  If the site is found suitable to support tree growth, a new tree will be planted.  Replanting will occur during the optimum replant season, which is generally November through March.
Replanting After Removal
If a vacant site (where a public tree was removed) is suitable to support a new tree, the site is replanted with a suitable tree species.  Because the stump has to be placed on a stump removal list and because the planting season is typically during the dormant season, this process -- from removal to replanting -- may take up to 1.5 years.

Last Updated: Oct 3, 2017