1960s–1970s: Too Much Progress? Birth of the Heritage Tree Ordinance

From a filmreel shot in 1964, a bulldozer topples a palm tree on Bayswater Avenue in order to remove the median and widen the street. Click to view film.

Nostalgia Spurs Preservation

By the 1960s, a rapid series of events led some Burlingame citizens to wonder if the character of the city was changing too much, if what made Burlingame such a special place to live was being compromised in the name of progress: the destruction of the Mills Estate in 1954; the destruction of both the first permanent house in Burlingame (built by early resident John Donnelly) and the the old ivy-covered city hall building on Park Road for parking lots.

In 1963, it was announced that the medians on Bayswater Avenue were also to be demolished. These medians, featuring sky-high palm trees, dated from the original subdivision of the area in 1896. The majority of Bayswater residents approved of this change as the islands made the streets narrow and difficult to navigate. Nevertheless, these were the last of the street islands in this area remaining (there were others on Bayswater that were removed in the 1920s as well as islands on Peninsula Avenue that were removed in 1923). Residents began to feel a bit nostalgic. A new spirit of historical preservation in Burlingame arose.

In 1967, the Advance-Star opined in an editorial:

“There’s always a good excuse to kill a tree. . . . But did you ever notice anyone thinking up an excuse to save a tree? . . . Here’s an excuse. Look ahead to 1990. If the population predictions are correct, and there’s no reason to believe they are not, the county will be crawling with people.  . . . Unless we are chary of every tree we now have, the Peninsula can turn out to be nothing more than the metropolitan sprawl that you can see anytime in much of San Francisco. . . . [Our trees] are one of the elements of suburban living that we value most highly.”

A New Law to Protect the Trees

Nomination form for Heritage Grove Designation. This application dated April 1, 1976, nominates the eucalyptus, pine, cypress, and other species on Easton Drive west of El Camino Real. Click to enlarge.

In 1975, the City Council of Burlingame passed the Heritage Tree ordinance (Ord. 1057), ensuring preservation of a certain class of trees in the city. Trees that were protected were those defined as “distinctive,” defined as measuring 4 feet in circumference or larger. Age, rarity, and historical importance of the tree were also taken into consideration when designating a particular tree as “heritage,” whether on public or private property. (The ordinance today is changed in some details.)

At the time the ordinance was passed, it was estimated that half of the city’s then-10,000 street trees would qualify. The first tree submitted and designated as a heritage tree was the Coast Redwood located on the property of Peter Chapin at 313 Chapin Lane. Soon after, “All of Trees Lining El Camino Real, Burlingame”and the eucalyptus, pine, cypress, and other trees lining Easton Drive from El Camino to Vancouver and California Drive from Burlingame Avenue to Palm were designated “heritage groves.”

But decades after the battle of progress versus preservation on El Camino, the issue of trees on the highway issue remained controversial. In 1975, the Burlingame Health, Safety, and Traffic Commission voted on December 12 to widen El Camino Real at Broadway Avenue—requiring the removal of 10 eucalyptus and elm trees—in order to develop turning lanes and reduce the  number of traffic accidents at that intersection. The same night, the Burlingame Beautification Commission went on the record as “vehemently” opposed to the plan. The Burlingame Beautification Commission was appointed by the City Council in 1968 to oversee advise the Council and staff on issues related to our urban forest.

On September 15, 1975, the City Council adopted Resolution 68-75, The Scenic Roads and Highways Element, as part of the city of Burlingame’s General Plan.  Its purpose was to “provide for the protection and preservation of attractive views from scenic routes for the enjoyment of the public and to enhance the scenic qualities of Burlingame.”  The resolution identified certain highways passing through Burlingame, including El Camino Real, to be designated as scenic highways.

Trees of Burlingame brochure, 1977

In 1977, the Burlingame Beautification Commission produced the pamphlet “Trees of Burlingame,” detailing more than 17o species of trees located in Burlingame as well as providing maps of key groves in the city and of the trees in Washington Park.