San Jose is changing how it manages its shrinking urban canopy after an audit found the city is ineffectively preventing tree loss.

San Jose councilmembers voted unanimously Tuesday to change how the city collects and reviews permits to remove trees, develop procedures to enforce replanting requirements and identify large locations to replant trees.

There are roughly 1.6 million trees citywide, a number that has gone down as more developments go up. Citywide tree canopy cover has decreased from 15.3 percent in 2012 to 13.5 percent as of 2018, according to city records. To maintain the canopy, the city requires property owners to either replace removed trees or pay in-lieu fees for the city to plant trees elsewhere. Of the total $1.5 million in fees collected, only $88,000 has been spent since 2018— the remainder would replant roughly 2,000 trees. The combination of those factors has resulted in loss of tree canopy without a concerted effort to replace it.

A  recent city audit shows a third of the 34 permits to remove trees reviewed had errors resulting in uncollected funds or unplanted trees. It also reveals the city does not follow up on checking if trees have been replanted.

“It’s so great to see the audit, although (it) confirms what I had feared,” Councilmember David Cohen said.

Cohen, along with Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez and Dev Davis, said in a memo that part of the solution is holding developers accountable for replacing trees, but mitigating tree loss is on the city.

“When we take out trees, we have to replace them and that policy work needs to be clear,” Davis said. “It’s not just better air quality and having a more comfortable place to run in those hot summer months. It’s about getting more people outside walking and they can have just a nicer place to live and a place that will help them improve their health just right outside their door, instead of having to go to another neighborhood.”

Tree canopies help alleviate heat in the city, and can reduce, block or buffer air, noise and water pollution. This in turn can protect residents from pollution-related illness and boost overall quality of health, according to several environmental groups.

John Ristow, city transportation director, said San Jose will use the remaining collected fees to plant 2,000 trees over the next couple years. Some of the funds may also be used to help residents with permits or subsidize tree replacement costs, which can start at $2,000 to remove a tree. Councilmembers said they want to reduce permit fees so residents will feel more inclined to obtain a permit.

Councilmember Omar Torres asked the city to replant the 2,000 trees with an equity lens. Areas like West San Jose, Willow Glen and South San Jose neighborhoods like Almaden have the majority of the city’s tree canopy. District 4 in North San Jose and neighborhoods in East San Jose and downtown are trailing behind, city data shows.

The new downtown councilmember suggested San Jose model itself after Portland, Oregon and remove pavement to plant more trees.

“When I jog around (the city) I see the difference,” Torres said. “We have lush greens in one neighborhood and one district and trees that are fighting for survival in (District 3).”

Torres shared a presentation highlighting the difference between public parks in more affluent parts of San Jose, where parks are covered with trees and greenery, and parks in lower income areas that are more drab with crumbling infrastructure. The presentation is reminiscent of a presentation given last year by former Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco, who is Torres’ senior advisor.

Councilmembers Peter Ortiz and Cohen agreed with Torres and said the city should make a greater effort to replant in areas with low tree canopies. Cohen suggested the city earmark 50 percent of in-lieu fees to spend on the districts they’re collected from. Ortiz added an amendment to have funds stay in districts that collect under $150,000 in fees.

“If you look at District 5 we made $775 in regards to in-lieu fees. District 7 made zero,” Ortiz said. “So this would help districts who make no in-lieu fees or who are limited (in) fees. It puts some areas at more advantage than others the way the current system is.”

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