S.F. residents resist care for the urban forest

By Rachel Gordon

San Francisco, CA (May 30, 2012)- Bill Russell is miffed. He and his wife, Irene, recently were put on notice by San Francisco City Hall that city workers no longer would care for the towering tree fronting their modest home on Alemany Boulevard that the couple moved into 50 years ago. But he believes that if the city planted the tree – which it did before he bought his home – then the city should maintain it.

“They told us they no longer have the money to care for the tree,” said Russell, a retiree who spent his career with Wonder Bread. “What happens if my wife and I don’t have money to care for the tree? What’s a citizen to do?”

“Ideally, tree maintenance should be done by the city to provide uniform care,” said San Francisco Public Works chief Mohammed Nuru, “but we just don’t have the resources to take care of them all.”

Last year the city cut its tree-maintenance budget by $300,000 to help balance the budget. The idea was to relinquish the care of about 3,428 trees annually over the next seven years. But a backlog of maintenance needs, administrative hurdles and public outcry have slowed the process.

Initially, the Department of Public Works, which runs the city’s tree division, planned to transfer 6,400 street trees during the current fiscal year that ends June 30. But so far, fewer than 1,100 have been formally given up by the city, and another 200 are about to be, Nuru said. But almost two-thirds of the approximately 3,000 trees already posted for relinquishment couldn’t be handed over as quickly as the city had hoped because they need major pruning, are unhealthy or their roots caused damage to sidewalks or sewers.

Under the program, no tree can be relinquished until it has been inspected by a certified arborist and deemed properly pruned and in good shape. In addition, any known damage caused by tree roots must be repaired first. Residents such as Russell who don’t want to care for the trees can file an appeal, and so far 140 have been filed, with all but a handful rejected, said Nuru.

It should come as no surprise that the transfer of so many trees had to be delayed. The optimal pruning cycle for a typical street tree in San Francisco is every three to five years. But a budget-driven staffing shortage has over time extended the regular maintenance cycle to every 10 to 12 years, Nuru said.

His agency slipped behind even more with the $300,000 funding reduction in the current fiscal year that resulted in the street tree crew being reduced from 10 to seven. Nuru said that although the tree-transfer program has fallen short of its original expectations, he anticipates the pace of the handovers to pick up because inspectors now will focus only on the trees anticipated to have the fewest problems.

This isn’t the first time the city has decided to place the burden of street-tree maintenance on private property owners. In the mid-1990s, tens of thousands were transferred to save the city money. Only at that time, property owners had a choice: accept responsibility or demand the tree be cut down. That offer no longer exists as the city aims to add to the stock of street trees, not reduce it.

Private property owners already care for about two-thirds of the city’s 100,300 street trees. In addition to the earlier transfers, any street trees planted in recent years at the residents’ request automatically are their responsibility. Once the planned transfers are completed, the Department of Public Works would maintain just under 12 percent of the stock that dots sidewalks and medians. San Francisco’s urban forestry budget is nearly $3.8 million. The city’s overall budget for the current fiscal year is $6.8 billion.

“I don’t like relinquishment; it’s not good policy,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener. “Over time we’ve made the choice to prioritize health and human services and public safety, and trees have been left out.” The city’s Departments of Planning and Public Works have commissioned an economic analysis due in July that will pinpoint the cost of maintaining street trees in the public realm. From that, a new urban forestry master plan will be developed that will focus on the importance of street trees environmentally and aesthetically.

The plan is likely to call for creating a dedicated funding stream for San Francisco’s public trees, perhaps through a new citywide tax or fee, to pay for adequate staffing. That way, all trees on public property will be maintained by the city and the financial burden would be spread beyond just the people who happen to have a tree in front of their properties, said Wiener, who supports the concept.

It’s an idea that Karen Aziz said she probably could support, too. She got a notice that the city-planted tree in front of her house on Monterey Boulevard will soon be hers to care for. The retired technical writer said she won’t be able to afford the required upkeep, which can cost from a couple of hundred dollars to $1,000 or more for a proper pruning. And the tab can run higher if the roots wreak havoc.

“Trees are for the beautification of the whole city, not just my house,” Aziz said. “What the city is doing is not fair.”

San Francisco street trees
Total inventory: 100,300
Privately maintained: 65,000 now
Privately maintained: 88,700 after planned transfer
The Department of Public Works will continue to maintain the 7,500 trees planted in the street medians and another 4,100 located elsewhere.

Related Resource:
San Francisco Chronicle- S.F. residents resist care for the urban forest