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The roots from trees growing along Acacia St. have damaged the sidewalks and create a safety hazard for pedestrians and cyclists in Fremont, Calif. as seen on Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. (Jim Stevens/Bay Area News Group)

FREMONT -- John and Sandy Mahar say that unruly tree roots in their Parkmont neighborhood have lifted sidewalks several inches off the ground, creating safety hazards in front of their homes that could injure pedestrians.

The Mahars believe removing those trees is the best solution, but the couple says they have been stymied by the city's tree-and-sidewalks policy, which three years ago shifted financial responsibility -- and legal liability -- for maintenance to Fremont property owners. That 2010 policy also implemented a permit process, in which the city can deny a homeowner's request for removing, planting and even pruning residential trees. That strikes some residents as being unfair.

"You can't give me responsibility to care for the tree and then tell me I can't take it down," said John Mahar, a retired Fremont firefighter. "They're dictating what can be done to the tree, but yet I'm paying for it. It's like I have no rights in this thing."

Mahar said he has felt handcuffed ever since a city employee told him that the tree in front of his Acacia Street home was too healthy to be removed, even though it was damaging the curb, gutter and sidewalk.

"The sidewalk looks like a roller coaster, up and down our street," he said.

Discouraged by the conversation, the couple did not file a tree-removal permit with Fremont.

That is part of the problem, Senior Landscape Architect Roger Ravenstad said, because the failure to file a permit may have prevented the two sides from finding a solution.

"We hear this a lot -- people are angry about the process or that someone is telling them what to do, and they walk away from the process" said Ravenstad. "The process is not as onerous as it may seem; we approve 90 percent of permit applications we receive."

There is no fee for filing a tree-related permit, Ravenstad said, adding that the city wants to work with residents on finding solutions.

"We actively help people meet the city's criteria," he said. "There's no benefit to keeping trees that are disease-ridden or are causing problems for homes or streets. The city has no interest in doing that."

According to the city of Fremont website, a tree-removal permit may be granted if the tree is diseased, or has damaged concrete or utility lines, or poses a "substantial hazard" to people or property. When what constitutes a "substantial hazard" is in dispute, the city requires that an arborist be hired -- at the homeowner's expense -- to make a ruling. An arborist's report on a simple issue can cost a few hundred dollars, but the price tag can rise to about $1,000 for complex issues, Ravenstad said.

The cost for removing a residential tree can range from $550 to $3,000, said Jim Nathan, a Fremont-based arborist and tree division manager at New Image Landscape. The average cost for removals is around $1,250 to $1,500, but a tree's size, location within a property and proximity to power poles or other dangerous obstacles can drive up the price, Nathan said.

The Mahars say it would be difficult to pay those bills -- they are raising two grandchildren on a fixed income -- but they would if the city gave them the green light.

In 2008-09, the last year Fremont had responsibility for maintaining its 55,000 trees, its annual budget for that service was $500,000, said Mike Sung, Fremont's finance operations manager. Union City still maintains its 18,000 city-owned trees on a $470,000 annual budget, while Newark spends $200,000 each year to maintain its 18,000 trees, officials said.

For sidewalks, each of the three cities follows state law, which states that property owners are responsible for maintenance and repair. But if a sidewalk hazard exists, each city has the option to make emergency repairs.

Rachel Mohr, who lives near the Mahars, said she is especially worried about the uneven sidewalk for Halloween next month, when children could be injured while walking or riding bicycles along her street in the dark of night. "We also have a concern about liability on our part if someone trips or falls," she said. Mohr said she would like to replace her frontyard tree and the damaged sidewalk but can't afford the price tag.

That leaves some neighbors in a no-win situation, Sandy Mahar said. Even if permits are approved, she said, being unable to afford solving the problems forces some homeowners to gamble with their future, leaving them with nothing but hope that hazardous sidewalks don't cause an injury or that the injured party won't file a lawsuit.

"We didn't put those trees and sidewalks in," she said. "We would like the city to fix the problem they created. The people who run this city need to look out for the people living in this city."

Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.

Fremont Trees and sidewalks
To request a permit to remove, plant or prune a tree: 510-494-4730
To report a tree or sidewalk hazard: 510-979-5700
For information about sidewalk replacement: 510-494-4700
More information: www.fremont.gov