The San Ramon City Council voiced support Tuesday for a multifaceted plan to confront current and projected issues with overgrowing trees and burdensome turf in many planting strips in Dougherty Valley neighborhoods.
The problems -- many stemming from trees being planted too close together or too close to utilities and infrastructure -- have included damage to irrigation systems, roots lifting sidewalks and roots damaging water meters, according to city officials.
"The street trees in some of the Dougherty subdivisions have already outgrown their intended space," Jeff Gault, city operations division manager, told the council during a public study session Tuesday night at City Hall.
"The city staff is working to initiate proactive strategies and management plan and address these concerns before they become bigger problems," Gault added.
That six-step plan, dubbed the Dougherty Valley tree and turf management action plan, includes removing an estimated 3,000 troublesome trees and replacing them with 2,000 size-appropriate varieties, as well as taking out up to 2.8 million square feet in grass turf in planting strips in favor of drought-friendlier mulch or plants over the next five years.
Other strategies include addressing individual priority conditions, ongoing repairs, damage claims and resident requests regarding trees currently causing damage, prioritizing areas with the greatest current or probable problems and reducing water usage only to levels needed to sustain trees.
"I like the fact that it's a multi-strategy approach here because you've got multiple problems going on," Councilman Harry Sachs said. "It's not impossible to do these things, and we have an obligation out there in Dougherty Valley to maintain the level of service that folks out there expect."
The five councilmen expressed support for the action plan, but some said they thought the city should also create a policy on removal of city-owned trees in order to address potential concerns, including if a resident opposes a tree removal.
"I think we ought to ask our Policy Committee and our attorney to help ... in coming up with a policy in face of a very resistant resident, that they would have to assume the liability and future replacement," Vice Mayor Scott Perkins said.
Gault noted there have been no complaints so far about damage-causing trees that have already been removed. No residents commented to the council during the nearly two-hour workshop on the tree and turf plan Tuesday night.
The problem trees are primarily located within city-maintained grass strips -- between 3 1/2 feet and 5 feet wide -- in neighborhoods in front of homes, with the trees having been planted by developers in close proximity to sidewalks, utilities and other infrastructure, according to city officials.
Gault said some of the problem trees have already caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair, maintenance, removal and other costs, and if the problem isn't addressed, they could cause up to $20 million in damage over the next 20 years.
During the study session, Gault introduced an online tree inventory that catalogs more than 4,300 surveyed trees and outlines tree condition ratings.
Currently, there are an estimated 3,000 trees that need to be removed due to noticeable current and potential damage, he said. There are 27,158 city-owned trees overall in the Dougherty Valley, according to city staff.
"We're only (taking a tree out) if it's breaking the sidewalk, we have to do it because we can't fix an irrigation break or, in many cases, we're having to remove the trees and pay for repairs because we've had so many water-meter breaks," Gault added. "But in most cases, those are the only reasons we're removing the trees."
For trees already removed or those on track for removal, city officials aim made to plant a new tree in an appropriate spot close to where the old tree has been removed, he said.
The action plan also calls for removing 2.8 million square feet of turf to reduce the surface root damage that has resulted from sharing the turf strips with trees, as well as to promote sustainability and water conservation and mitigate long-term maintenance costs.
By removing the turf, city staff hopes to replace it with more sustainable plants in residential areas, Gault said.
On major Dougherty Valley roads and collector streets, such as the Bollinger Canyon Road median from Alcosta Boulevard to Canyon Lakes Drive, the city hopes to replace turf with mulch in order to reduce water use and to sustain trees only.
That move would substantially reduce the initial upfront cost of converting turf, compared to replacing it with low-maintenance landscape plantings, and reduced maintenance and water costs would be realized immediately, Gault said.
"I think the path that we should likely pursue is first to stop the watering in the turf areas, save the money that goes with that, then put in the mulch," Perkins said. "So, the money gets saved upfront, you quit the maintenance, you reduce the water costs, and obviously you're going to take out problem trees and respond to people's requests with the trees."
The council and city staff also discussed implementation funding but did not hash out specifics such as funding sources or full project cost estimates.
The recommended five-year implementation is estimated to cost $6.5 million, but staff expects those costs could be fully recovered in roughly 13 1/2 years due to savings from reduced watering, maintenance and other costs, Gault said.
"But, that's a fully implemented plan," he added. "There's other measures that could be considered that would save maintenance costs and initial costs would be less."
"The $6.5 million is an estimate with taking everything out and then replacing it with something else," Gault said. "It would be a significantly less initial amount if we just mulched the turf areas and leave them be for a while, and then start realizing maintenance savings to build up that money, and then after a period of time has gone by, decide where we want to put things back."