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SF finalizing plan for reclaiming care of street trees

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Before the tech boom in San Francisco, care of street trees was foisted upon property owners to make up for budget deficits. In July, The City will take that responsibility back. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco’s ailing tree canopy is expected to get the love and care it needs after voters overwhelmingly approved a measure in November requiring The City to care for all street trees.

In a pre-tech boom era of budget deficits San Francisco decided to foist the care of street trees, along with the cost of repairing sidewalks damaged by tree roots, to the adjacent property owners.

That move was largely unpopular among many property owners, but it took years of complaining at City Hall before anything was done about it. Then, in November, 78 percent of voters approved Proposition E, which was placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors through the efforts of now-state Sen. Scott Wiener and Supervisor John Avalos, transferring responsibility of maintaining the trees back to The City.

There was some uncertainty, however, that Mayor Ed Lee wouldn’t authorize the measure given that The City is once again facing large budget deficits in line with pre-tech boom days.

“Under voter-approved Proposition E, the mayor, who will be considering the cost implications on The City budget, has until Jan. 1, 2017 to decide whether to implement the measure,” a spokesperson for the Department of Public Works told the San Francisco Examiner in a Nov. 17 email. “If the measure gets the green light, Public Works would assume responsibility for all street trees on July 1, 2017.”

The mayor announced Dec. 8 that he would implement the measure.

In the days leading up to the mayor’s decision, Dan Flanagan, executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest who helped place the measure on the ballot, kept the pressure on city officials.

“I’m thrilled and relieved by the passage of Prop. E and by the mayor’s decision to leave it intact,” Flanagan told the Examiner on Friday. “Our urban forest is in crisis, and Prop. E will make a huge difference.”

Friends of the Urban Forest contributed at least $345,000 to the more than $500,000 campaign at the ballot.

Prop. E ensures that The City will have the funding to properly maintain the street trees — the measure creates an annual set-aside of $19 million. In the past, The City didn’t have the resources to maintain the trees adequately and by giving over a portion of the street tree responsibility to adjacent property owners, trees were also neglected.

“We are still finalizing our plan and will be rolling out a public awareness campaign after the New Year,” Rachel Gordon, a Public Works spokesperson said in an email to the Examiner on Friday. “To implement Proposition E, we are planning on hiring new arborists and contracting out some work.”

There are currently about 90,000 street trees being cared for by property owners, according to Gordon.

The department will prioritize the trees in the worst condition using a street tree census report due out next month. Routine pruning of street trees will begin in 2019 on a three- to five-year pruning cycle. That’s the recommended cycle for trees, but The City has had an average 10- to 12-year pruning cycle per tree. The pruning schedule is expected to be published in July 2018.

Preliminary street tree census data provided by the Planning Department shows there are about 125,000 street trees of which “33 percent are in poor condition, critical condition or dead.”

The census has found approximately one out of five street trees have roots that caused damage to the sidewalk, and there are some 600 different types of trees planted. Through Prop. E, The City is also responsible for any tree-related sidewalk damage.

The large number of different species is more challenging to maintain. Flanagan noted that in general, diversity of species is good, but there was a balance to strike.

“You don’t want monocultures, which can be wiped out by diseases and pests,” Flanagan said. “On the other hand, a varied urban forest is more challenging to maintain, because each species has its own needs.”

There is capacity for the urban forest to grow, the census found, with almost 40,000 vacant planting sites.

The Prop. E funding doesn’t include any money for additional tree planting, but Friends of the Urban Forest has vowed to privately raise money to plant more trees. San Francisco’s urban forest is much thinner than other major U.S. cities.

“Those vacant planting sites represent a tremendous opportunity for San Francisco to increase its meager tree canopy coverage,” Flanagan said. “Our goal is to plant trees in all those sites, and our priority is to focus first on our least leafy neighborhoods, such as the Bayview.” It costs about $500 to plant a tree.

James Riley was one of those property owners long criticizing The City for the transfer of street tree care, and he had contacted Wiener numerous times to fix it. The Examiner interviewed Riley last year when he wondered why City Hall wouldn’t listen to him as he unsuccessfully fought The City for having to take responsibility of the three 40-­year-old Blackwood Acacia trees planted by The City outside of his Lake Street home.

With Prop. E’s passage, Riley has prevailed at last. But it sounds like his faith in city government remains shaken.

“It’s a relief to know that the financial and liability burden from a situation forced on me is gone, but I have serious doubts that The City can or will actually take care of the trees and the walkways,” Riley said Friday.

“I predict most of the money will go to new city positions filled by those with connections, consultants or those with links to concrete companies,” he added. “And what about all the trees that have been cut down or have mysteriously died since they were transferred to property owners?”

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