Money doesn’t grow on SF trees — quite the opposite

If Mark Twain had spent some more freezing summers in San Francisco, I’m sure he would have come up with a few more pithy truths about The City.

Something along the lines of: “Whiskey is for drinking. Trees are for fighting.”

Anyone who doubts how deeply rooted the battles are over our street-planted friends have not spent enough time here to face the consequences of The City’s tree program, where one is encouraged to sow, but never to remove — no matter how dangerous or costly an innocuous tree can turn out to be.

This was brought home with some clarity this week when a supervisors’ committee heard testimony from outraged residents over an idea to transfer the maintenance and cost of caring for some 24,000 street trees from The City to its citizens — a plan that is being stomped on before it gains ascendancy.

And that’s the way it ought to be, since San Francisco’s street tree program, as overgrown as a runaway pine, makes as much sense as planting new eucalyptus and has been as kind as poison oak to those who have had the misfortune of brushing up against it.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the backlash against the proposal will be so severe as to cause The City to withdraw it, since it will only save a measly $600,000 out of a $6.8 billion budget. Yet it serves as a reminder that nearly two-thirds of The City’s 103,000 street trees are already under the care of private property owners whether they are aware of it or not.

Usually they are made aware only after some tree roots snarl their sewer lines or buckle the sidewalk to the point that the cement is more of a ramp than a walkway, hurtling pedestrians and bike-riders alike. Trying to get The City to take responsibility for trees that it planted is like holding a politician to an election-year promise — you’d have better luck trying to catch water with your hands.

Which trees fall to The City’s care and those that are the responsibility of private citizens is as random and haphazard as a drive on the streets of Rome.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” Ed Reiskin, the head of the Department of Public Works told me. “There’s no logic that applies. It’s a completely arbitrary thing.”

You can live on one street and be fortunate enough to find that it’s a block that The City maintains, and then go around the corner and find that the trees there are the responsibility of the dwellers. The only way to find out — say after a tree causes your basement to flood — is by trying to find your street on DPW’s website — a dizzying task at best.

And let’s say you want to remove that problem tree. The City must sign off on it, which it almost universally will not do if it’s a healthy tree. It turns out trees have more rights than most people.

As a result, tree stories abound. A few years back, a majestic 60-foot pine on my sidewalk was ripping up the street and snagging power lines, but neither PG&E nor The City would deal with it, saying that it was my problem to fix. I summoned a tree company, who told me it would cost about $6,000 to remove said tree.

Thankfully, I knew some adventurous arborists who did it for a pittance and even put in a new sidewalk. The City remains blissfully unaware. But most folks are not so lucky.

I have a friend on Potrero Hill who has a nearby tree that oozes a sweet, sticky substance. This natural occurrence happens to be unnatural for cars — the fluid corrodes paint and is virtually impossible to remove. After several cars succumbed, the neighbors asked the owner to remove it.

He tried. The City told him he can only trim it, which he did, but the problem remains. The neighbors admonished him for asking permission. Why didn’t he just knock it down?

Now The City is trying to pass the buck and 24,000 trees onto its residents. Resist at all costs. In the buzzsaw of bureaucracy, the first cut is the deepest.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at

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