By John Ramos

BERKELEY (KPIX 5) — Berkeley elected officials met Tuesday to determine the fate of a number of mature trees growing in traffic circles that were going to be cut down and the city had a change of heart.

The council approved the recommendation of the Traffic Circle Task Force and said it won’t cut down any existing trees. Discussion on what will happen for any potential new trees will be had a later date, a city spokesperson said.

For years, the landscaping in Berkeley’s residential traffic circles has been maintained by the neighbors who live nearby. But in May of last year, city staff recommended that all of the trees in the circles be cut down because they obstructed the view of drivers. Predictably, a lot of people thought that was not a good idea.

“Absolutely not,” said Berkeley resident Kira Branson. “In fact, I think they support rather than detract.”

The decision was the result of a $2 million lawsuit settlement when someone was injured in the crosswalk at the intersection of Ellsworth and Stuart Streets. A tree in the traffic circle was alleged to have contributed to the accident.

But when more than 1,000 residents signed petitions, the mayor created a citizen task force to work with staff engineers, who then recommended that only trees six inches in diameter would be allowed.

“And they seemed perplexed by the idea that you couldn’t guarantee that a tree would only be six inches in diameter…trees grow,” said task force member Steve Finacom.

The task force discovered that other cities such as Seattle require trees in their traffic circles and that federal traffic guidelines recommend them to make circles more visible, and to possibly prevent cars from driving into the circles as has happened twice in the last two weeks in Berkeley.

Tuesday evening, after a year and a half of studying the issue, the council met to make a final decision.

“We hope the Council agrees with us and approves our policy recommendations,” said task force Chair Diane Ross-Leech. “Trees are a good thing!”

Their arguments convinced someone, because Tuesday morning emails from the city went out saying staff was no longer recommending removing any trees.

Whether that was from the persuasiveness of their position or the ire of the voters is anyone’s guess, but landscape volunteer George Harter thinks he knows.

“I think maybe they’ve had some people talk some common sense into them about not confronting the neighborhood.”

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