Residents should not be saddled with responsibility for tree maintenance 

The funding required for maintaining trees along our streets and in the parks of San Francisco is a growing problem that urgently needs to be addressed.

When it comes to trees in city parks and open space, the issue is simple — money needs to be dedicated from The City’s general fund to pay for the services of arborists. Unless we want our parks to be barren wastelands devoid of trees, we need to dedicate resources to keeping them healthy.

But the streets of The City, adjacent to private property, are home to about 110,000 more trees. In some cases, property owners have chosen to plant these trees and accept that they will have to care for them. In other cases, The City plants the trees and cares for them. And then there are the times when The City plants the trees and passes along the care to the property owners.

As funding has dwindled for the Department of Public Works, the main agency in charge of street trees, that agency increasingly is transferring the care of street trees to property owners. Public Works has transferred the care of about 65,000 street trees to property owners, and plans to switch over responsibility for 24,000 more over the next seven years.

This transfer of care is rife with potential problems. Property owners, who often have no say in whether trees are planted in the first place, may not care for their trees or maintain them in a safe manner.

As well as being good for the environment, trees are an important way to beautify The City, and San Francisco should continue planting them at an aggressive pace. The Planning Department says there are about 700,000 trees growing on public and private property in The City, an urban canopy that covers nearly 14 percent of San Francisco. Meanwhile, the average tree cover in the United States is reportedly between 22 percent and 30 percent.

Residents can, of course, do their part by planting more trees on private property. But in a city of renters and properties that lack outdoor space, the public realm is the backyard for many people. The City needs to continue to provide a well-landscaped environment for everyone, and trees play a critical role.

But The City cannot keep planting trees and then dumping the responsibility for maintaining them upon private citizens. It also cannot stop caring for its trees altogether. This funding issue will be the subject of a hearing called for by Supervisor Scott Wiener, who recently told The San Francisco Examiner that, “We need to find a sustainable funding source for our urban forest.”

Wiener floated the idea of a small parcel tax that would go toward the care of street trees, with the goal of transferring responsibility for maintenance back to The City. Even the idea of a tax will be grating to some, but no idea should be discounted this early in the process of discussing how to solve the problem. Funding for anything is a fight in San Francisco, but our trees need a Lorax, which they seem to have found in Wiener’s push for sustainable funding.

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