SF to Shift Street Tree Care to Property Owners

July 20, 2011

Arborist Chris Altman recently had a job to remove a beautiful 15-year-old ash tree from its sidewalk-bound home. The tree appeared healthy at first glance, but it had lacked proper pruning and care from the start due to owner and city neglect, leaving its branches unstable and hazardous to unsuspecting passersby.

“Too many people think that after they plant a tree, the work is over,” said Altman, owner of Trees Company, an independent tree consultant. “It’s much more than that.”

Due to looming city budget cuts, Altman’s concerns over tree maintenance are in danger of growing. Mayor Ed Lee recently produced a budget package for the new fiscal year that cut $300,000 from the already tight street tree care allowance. The proposal would shift the city’s responsibility for 24,000 trees in front of private property onto the property owners over the next seven years. They would have to hire arborists to keep their trees healthy and pruned, an expense that can run up to $400 per visit. Property owners who neglect their new duties face city fines reaching $500 per citation. The city would keep maintaining trees on public property.

Until now, San Francisco city officials have been promoting various “greening” initiatives as part of a wider effort to create a livable city. “Trees for Tomorrow” was launched in 2005 under then-mayor Gavin Newsom to expand the city’s urban forest by 25,000 trees within five years, a number that was exceeded by 1,000. And in 2006, the city’s Urban Forestry Council produced the Urban Forestry Master Plan with the goal to increase San Francisco’s canopy cover from 12 percent to 15 percent over the next 10 years. The Richmond District received 2,000 new trees in a 2009 project, although more than 50 died from lack of water. Now, around 89,000 of the city’s approximately 100,000 sidewalk trees will be the public’s responsibility

According to the transfer plan, the city’s department of public works does not have the resources to frequently maintain all trees within its shrinking budget. Additionally, DPW said that the plan will “provide more equitable allocation of tree maintenance responsibility,” as some private property owners are currently responsible for the 65,000 trees on city sidewalks in front of private property.

Nonetheless, Altman sees this transfer as both a financial win and environmental boost.

“When I first heard about the transfer I thought, ‘Ooh, more work for me!’” said Altman. “Plus, the city’s arborists often unnecessarily cut trees and there aren’t enough of them. This could lead to better overall tree care.”

“I believe it’s a tragedy. The city should be taking care of their trees for long-term community benefit.”

But many tree advocates think otherwise.

“I believe it’s a tragedy,” Dan Flanagan, executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest, said. “The city should be taking care of their trees for long-term community benefit.”

Flanagan said FUF plans to hire a consultant that will research the best tree care practices across the country to help create a more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable tree care system. Once a plan is developed, FUF will present their idea to city officials.

“I want to do it right,” Flanagan said. “Thankfully the city and the supervisors are really listening.”

Supervisor John Avalos is the leading supporter of FUF’s work. In June, Avalos sponsored a hearing on the issue. While Avalos has yet to come up with a solution, Avalos aide Frances Hsieh said that the hearing ignited discussions about using voluntary donations and fees tagged onto new development projects to pay for tree care.

“With the economy the way it is, it’s understandable that the city has to make these cuts,” Hsieh said. “But we’re looking to pay for long-term care, the burden should not be put on the property owners. There’s got to be a way.”

Along with Avalos’ office, the Urban Forestry Council, which advises city departments, does not support the transfer of tree maintenance. In a resolution passed in June, the council agreed that “the transfer of street tree maintenance is harmful to the long-term viability of the City and County of San Francisco and its environment and deplores such action.”

The tree proposal echoes the recent sidewalk garden initiative, which allows property owners to remove a section of sidewalk for garden space. Long term care for the gardens is also in question, as owners may not consistently maintain them and the city retains the right to fine for lack of care.

The high cost of tree care leaves arborist Judy Thomas frustrated by the city’s plan.

“Private arborists are too pricey for many homeowners, which will lead to a gradual destruction of trees” said Thomas, owner of commercial tree consultant firm Bay Area Plant Consultants. “For me, it’s not a matter of personal profit-making, it’s a matter of endangered tree populations.”

Thomas, who became a consultant after teaching tree care classes for years, said she sees tax hikes as a viable solution to the tree care’s budget shortage. This could leave the urban forest’s future dependent on community cooperation.

“If we raise taxes, trees will benefit and the city will benefit,” she said. “The question is, can we share the load or not?”

About the Author

Alex Zielinski is a reporter for Way Out West News, dedicated to daily coverage of Bay Area green news with an eye on regionally and nationally relevant stories. WOW is produced by two local environmental journalists, and their partners, who are camping out at public meetings, traipsing through parks, and sticking our noses into green tech research to bring you stories that matter.