SF eases removal of problematic ficus trees as new storm approaches

Courtesy of Friends of the Urban ForestThe removal of at-risk ficus trees like this one on Potrero Avenue near 23rd Street that fell on two vehicles is expected to become an easier process under a new initiative.

Removing at-risk ficus trees in San Francisco just got easier for property owners and The City, as the region braces this week for what could be its largest storm yet this season.

Though stormy weather over the Thanksgiving weekend brought down weakened ficus tree limbs onto cars, and a construction worker was injured by a falling limb during mid-November rain, a new order easing the removal of such problematic ficus trees has been in the works for several months, said Rachel Gordon, Department of Public Works spokeswoman.

The initiative, signed by DPW Director Mohammed Nuru on Nov. 24, relaxes the removal standards for individual ficus street trees across The City by requiring only one of numerous criteria to be met.

Trees are considered vulnerable to failure if they are at least 50 feet tall, have competing trunks or have a live canopy that makes up less than 30 percent of the tree. Other criteria are that the tree has roots that have been pruned at least two times, has a history of limb failures, or has a canopy or trunk that conflicts with streetlights or power lines.

Previously, requesting the removal of a ficus tree typically required more than one of such criteria to be identified.

“We don't want to remove any trees from The City if we don't have to … [but] we really felt this was in the best interest in the public to look at the at-risk trees and make it easier for people to remove the trees,” Gordon said.

Trees recommended for removal will be posted with a notice to alert the public, and anyone who objects to the removal has 30 days to file a formal protest. That would trigger a public hearing from which an administrative officer would determine the tree's fate.

It's unclear what the new order will cost The City, but DPW officials estimate that removing a fully mature ficus tree costs between $1,000 and $1,500. Of the 2,700 ficus street trees in San Francisco, about 1,400 are maintained by The City.

Dan Flanagan, executive director of the Friends of the Urban Forest, applauded the new order, but said it would be easier and less expensive for municipalities to take care of all ficus street trees.

“Ficus trees have a tendency to fail, and if you're not pruning them on a good cycle [such as every] three to five years, bad things can happen to those trees,” Flanagan said.

Towering ficus trees are prevalent along such thoroughfares as Lombard Street, Potrero Avenue and Hyde Street. They can become top-heavy when their leaves are trimmed on one side to avoid hitting a building. Other potential issues have arisen with ficus trees whose roots have been shaved over the years, or have become weakened by having multiple trunks.

“As these trees get taller and age, they are more problematic,” said Gordon.

San Francisco has not planted any new ficus trees in The City since the 1990s.

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