San Francisco shifting tree care onto property owners

By Alex Zielinski

A Chinese elm's roots alter the sidewalk on Folsom St. Photo: Alex Zielinski, Way Out West

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.”

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.”

A Eugenia St. Gignko, one of the many trees planted citywide by Friends of the Urban Forest. Photo: Alex Zielinski, Way Out West

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?”

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13 Responses to San Francisco shifting tree care onto property owners

  1. param on 07/12/2011 at 2:16 pm

    cut the minimum hourly wage rate across board for all beginning from governor,as also a 10%cut in corporate wages—link it to a 3%property taxcut,1% state income tax cut.increase a 1%tax on automobiles and gas at gas station which will reduce wasteful travel save money in citizens’wallets the city can keep doing all it has been doing without a sweat.
    you can provide

  2. Tree Lover and Hugger on 07/12/2011 at 2:17 pm

    Trees are like homes . . something that requires continuous maintenance, care, cost, and love. And, one of the main issues today’s homeowners face is the deferred maintenance issue. It extends to trees and the city with wanting to encourage the greening of the city streets with trees is also trying to add an additional maintenance burden to the avg homeowner who can barely keep their house in satisfactory condition! Add to that a bad economy, no jobs, and higher taxes. The city needs a more enlightened approach to the tree care issue.

  3. jojo on 07/12/2011 at 2:39 pm

    The city’s promotion of planting trees in front of houses always seemed a bit silly to me. Generally, the sidewalk abuts the curb and is barely wide enough for pedestrians without adding trees to the mix that make it hard to negotiate walking down a street, except in single file.

  4. Bill Miller on 07/12/2011 at 3:27 pm

    I think it is absolutely irresponsible for the city to ask its citizens to care for trees that are in front of their houses. The city did not ask permission to plant them and now because of a tight budget wants its taxpayers to keep them up. What about the citizens who are on a fixed income and already being taxed to the max. Another expense added to the poor taxpayers. When will it stop.

  5. Jou Baur on 07/12/2011 at 4:04 pm

    Poison them or cut them down!
    That’s what I’d do if they expected me to pay for their trees.

  6. chris guenther escondido city arborist on 07/12/2011 at 4:19 pm

    This is a real bad idea. The thought of residents taking over tree care would be a real disaster. Go and drive around different places and see the tree care you would get and how many people you would discourage even having a tree.You would not be able to inforce anything since, it’s not our tree anymore. So in my professional experiance you would slowly kill what we have, which is already being threaten.

  7. Jeff Cooper on 07/12/2011 at 4:20 pm

    Have prison inmates do the pruning and learn a skill or 2. Keep their minds busy on pruning rather than on protesting not having free HBO in prison.

  8. sftparty on 07/12/2011 at 4:56 pm

    trust government and that is what u get folks! oh and do not forget the city “side walk police” prowling ur neighborhoods looking for little cracks so u are forced to replace the sidewalks which is very costly and of course pay for a city permit to do so ($200+ dollars). And if that tree the city talked u into planting causes the cracks well?
    The cement construction companies luv it and so do the politicians who received “donations” from those construction companies.

  9. Al on 07/12/2011 at 5:16 pm

    Stop planting trees, plant marijuana instead! The up keep pays for itself!

  10. Chris on 07/12/2011 at 5:30 pm

    Reduce City workers benefits to reasonable standards and the City will suddenly afford all the tree care it needs.

  11. Michelle Burke on 07/12/2011 at 6:43 pm

    If property owners are fined $500 per tree because they failed to give nearby trees a hair cut then I expect to see many poisoned trees in SF. I had a neighbor once that girdled the 40′ tall healthy tree in front of her house to kill it because she hated having leaves on the sidewalk! I know many people unhappy with the expense of fixing 1/4″ aberrations in the sidewalk in front of their house (since they see sidewalks as public infrastructure since both renters (hard to pass costs to them) and non-residents of SF use them for free) and they will be a lot more pissed if they have to pay for damage caused by a tree they didn’t plant. I also would expect arborist fees to go up as demand goes up making property owners even more unhappy with trees in the sidewalk. The city is a better place with more trees. Don’t undermine community assets to solve bad management elsewhere in government.

  12. Mark on 07/15/2011 at 12:01 pm

    If we’re financially responsible for the trees fronting our property, I sure do hope we’ll have the discretion to decide whether we want to keep or remove them, particularly since they’re not critical, mandatory infrastructure. Don’t get me wrong, trees are beautiful and even add value, however, they’re not essential to function. What’s next, say, everyone must have Christmas lights hung on posts fronting their homes during the holidays? It would be nice, but don’t make it mandatory to have them, and if you are going to make mandatory something of preference, don’t make us pay for them.

    SF already takes so much of our money already too. Many of the readers here are right. Unbelievable the City doesn’t have any money to provide upkeep. What’s next, and when, at what, will it stop. Add more tax property owners have to pay to pay for something like the repainting of street signs? At least having legible street signs is mandatory to function.

    Also, property owners are hardly the only ones supposedly enjoying the trees. The public does. Why is SF choosing, amongst many options, to make the property owner responsible and incur the cost. I wonder how much the advocates of trees at any cost will keep to their tune when they know they will certainly be paying an extra $500 or more directly out of their pocket every year.

  13. Tree Removal Brisbane on 07/26/2011 at 2:31 pm

    We all love trees!

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