BURLINGAME — If only Tom weren't so healthy — it would be so much easier to take him down.

But Tom, a towering Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus, is as strong as an ox, with a life expectancy of another 30 years or more, according to an arborist's report.

So Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel finds herself in a bind. She cannot support two City Council members who want to cut down the roughly 100-year-old tree, which they view as both a danger and a legal liability.

But Nagel also can't bring herself to join her other two colleagues, who feel the hazards posed by the tree are overblown and are comfortable leaving it mostly alone. She is caught in the middle, trying to find a compromise on an issue that has ignited a small but passionate debate in "Tree City USA."

"She's really in an awful spot," said Jeannie Gilmore, a board member for Citizens for a Better Burlingame. "There's an election coming up in November, and this could be used against her, which would be terrible, because she's the most conscientious mayor we've ever had."

Nagel originally voted to remove the tree last December, back in the days before local residents bestowed the eucalyptus with a nickname. But the public outcry over the council's 3-2 decision led the new mayor to reconsider the issue in January.

It was then that Nagel changed her mind, joining Councilman Russ Cohen and Councilwoman Cathy Baylock in voting to preserve the tree andexplore options for directing traffic around the roughly 2-foot hump in front of the Easton Branch Library.

Vice Mayor Rosalie O'Mahony and Councilwoman Ann Keighran remained in favor of taking out the tree, which they consider a hazard to vehicles and pedestrians, including children visiting the library, and a lawsuit waiting to happen.

When the council picked up the matter again Monday, Nagel's colleagues stuck to their positions, leaving her as the swing vote once again. Nagel floated the idea of turning Easton Drive into a one-way street, but the motion died without a second.

Conducting a traffic analysis of creating a one-way street would cost about $50,000, according to Assistant Public Works Director Syed Murtuza.

Nagel said she's trying to remain flexible and exhaust all remaining alternatives, even as some members of the council and public grow exasperated, feeling the issue has been talked and studied into the ground.

"The frustration of this thing is that the discussion has gone on so long that people have dug their heels in," Nagel said.

Nagel wants to perform a postcard survey of the area surrounding 1800 Easton Drive. Her goal is to see whether residents would prefer to study turning part of the eucalyptus-lined avenue into a one-way street or simply take the tree out.

Nagel said she will not support leaving Tom and the street in their current configuration, because of the liability it presents.

"That's a hazard that we knowingly allow to sit there," Nagel said.

The tree stands at an intersection with a four-way stop sign. Its roots cause cars to slow to a crawl or go around the hump into the opposite lane.

"That's where the potential for an accident is," Murtuza said. "It's not the bump itself; it's avoiding the bump."

Cohen said cars are slowed to such a degree by the stop signs and the hump that there is little danger of a traffic accident. The city does not have any record of accidents being caused by Tom's rogue roots.

"There don't seem to be any demonstrable reasons, other than fear and inconvenience, to remove that tree," said Cohen. "And in my mind, that's not enough."

As a temporary measure, Cohen has proposed installing signs along the street warning of Tom's hump.

The question facing Nagel is whether there is any support for performing a survey or eliminating two-way traffic. She did persuade the council to have the city re-examine a list of trees approved for replanting along Easton Drive.

O'Mahony said she opposes both the survey and shutting down one lane of traffic. Creating a one-way street would be "the most imprudent decision that the City Council could ever make," she said. 

Surveying the area surrounding the library won't provide sufficient information, O'Mahony added, because many of the people who use Easton Drive don't live in the neighborhood.

Still, Nagel wonders why there is such entrenched opposition to taking the public's temperature, especially when it would cost just $1,000, according to her estimate.

Nagel, who is up for re-election this fall, said she's not worried about political pressure and just wants to find the best solution for the greatest number of people.

"I would like the decision to be the right decision," Nagel said. "And I don't think I have the one missing piece of information, and that is what the community wants."

Staff writer Aaron Kinney can be reached at (650) 348-4302 or at akinney@sanmateocountytimes.com.