Noe Valley Voice December-January 2007

Local Resident's Oak Tree Wins Landmark Status

By Corrie M. Anders

A majestic, century-old oak tree residing in the back yard of Robert and Susan Call's home on 23rd Street has become the first tree in Noe Valley to be designated an official city landmark.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors awarded the tree the special status at its Nov. 13 meeting, and Mayor Gavin Newsom signed the decree into law the next day.

Upon learning of the city's decision, the Calls said they were very happy and relieved.

"It's great. It has been a long process," said Robert Call, who initiated the quest to preserve the tree more than a year ago.

The Calls' tree now joins 12 other individual trees, and the palm trees that grace the Dolores Street median strip, in gaining landmark status in San Francisco.

The designation gives the trees--whether on private or public property--extraordinary protection from being chopped down or from having their branches, roots, or trunks maimed. Even a future owner of the Calls' home would have to live with the restrictions, said Mei Ling Hui, coordinator for the Urban Forestry Council, which advises the San Francisco Environment Department on landmark trees.

Though native to San Francisco, the tree in the Calls' back yard, a Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), is indeed a rare and impressive specimen.

The towering tree stretches skyward some 35 to 40 feet and has a 50-foot-wide crown that practically covers their yard and a third of their neighbor's.

The tree is not visible from the front of the Calls' home at 4124 23rd Street. But it is in the view of many neighbors who live on the streets above them, and passersby can see its broad canopy from 23rd and Castro streets.

100-Year-Old Sprawling Giant

The tree already was a distinctive presence when the Calls moved into their home 19 years ago. "We were excited to find this big tree in our back yard," said Call, an antiques dealer. "The fireplace, the view, and the tree are the great things about my house."

With its leafy sprawling branches, the tree is a wildlife playground that has provided many joyful moments for him and his family.

"Our cats like it. I have three crows that come and visit and yell at the cats," Call said. "We hang chandeliers in it for birthday parties."

In his application to the forestry council, Call declared the oak an "important wildlife habitat" for birds, with "prominent landscape features," and cited its maturity--estimated at around 100 years old.

"It is unusual to find such a magnificent tree in an urban back outstanding specimen of one of California's iconic trees," he wrote.

The city agreed. And as required under a 1996 city ordinance, the tree's name and address were recorded in an official book of "Landmark Trees" that is maintained by the city's Bureau of Urban Forestry.

"It's a spectacular large Coast Live Oak...just a great-looking specimen," said Mike Boss, a landscaper and gardener who chairs the council's Landmark Tree Committee and visited the Calls for a firsthand look.

"We've had a lot of trees before us that didn't rise to the caliber of landmark status" because they were pawns in a property dispute between neighbors, Boss said. "We were happy to see a tree before us that was worthy of landmark status and not some last-ditch effort to save a tree to stop a development."

Don't Dawdle to Save Trees

Nevertheless, the Calls first became concerned about the tree's safety after their next-door neighbor began construction work on an addition to the rear of his home in mid-2006.

"We were nervous. Our tree extended over his back yard," said Call, who admits he still gets emotional when talking about the tree. "I came home one day, and they were digging a trench across the backyard yard. It was going to destroy the root system for half the tree."

Call said he got his neighbor voluntarily to halt the excavation, and then hurried down to City Hall looking for help. Within short order, nearly a dozen planning and public works officials met in the Calls' back yard, with the neighbor present, and all acknowledged that the tree should be spared.

District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty nominated the Calls' tree--a move that gave it immediate protection for 180 days. But the time limit expired before the request was acted upon, prompting Robert Call to file his own application.

Call said his successful effort took perseverance in what was "a lengthy and cumbersome process." He urged residents not to dawdle in seeking recognition for deserving trees.

"If you know of a significant tree, the time to act is now and not when it appears to be threatened," Call said. "A lot can happen to your tree once construction happens around it."

Landmark Trees Have to Be Special

A city ordinance to protect exceptional trees in San Francisco with landmark status has been on the books since 1996. Last year, the city enacted an amendment that tightened the regulation and spelled out specific criteria to safeguard meritorious trees on private or public land.

The ordinance allows five entities, including tree owners, city supervisors, some department heads, and several city agencies, to nominate trees for landmark status. The candidates must have unusual qualities--such as their age, size, shape, species, location, and historical or cultural characteristics.

Nominations are submitted to the Urban Forestry Council, which vets the request and holds public hearings. If the council finds that the tree has enough of the desired qualities, it forwards a "yes" recommendation to the Board of Supervisors.

A landmark tree can only be removed if it becomes a safety hazard. Even then, private property owners would be required to obtain a city permit and undergo scrutiny at a public hearing. City officials face similar conditions to take out landmark trees on public grounds.