Supervisor wants to revisit issue of tree maintenance

San Francisco is touted as a green city, but when it comes to caring for trees, what’s lacking is the green.

Funding for tree maintenance has long challenged The City even as it has pushed for aggressive tree planting. For years, the failure to adequately fund tree upkeep has haunted city officials, but there’s been little progress.

No one knows The City’s budget struggle better than those property owners who recently found out the Department of Public Works had decided to gradually transfer maintenance of 110,000 street trees to their adjacent property owners. The transfer has met with some resistance.

Now, as The City works on a new urban forest master plan to address everything from funding to planting, Supervisor Scott Wiener is confronting this reality. He has requested a hearing on San Francisco’s urban forest.

“We have hundreds of thousands of trees in the public realm in The City and it’s one of our greatest assets,” Wiener said Tuesday. “It makes our city green, cleans our air and beautifies our streets. Yet, for a number of years, budget cuts have severely reduced DPW and Rec and Park’s urban forestry budget and their ability to maintain these trees.”

Property owners may not want responsibility for street trees, know how to care for them or be willing to spend the money to do so properly, Wiener observed. And he said it is “not acceptable” that the Recreation and Park Department is able to prune its trees only once every 50 years, on average.

“We need to find a sustainable funding source for our urban forest,” Wiener said.

One solution, Wiener said, is to ask voters to approve a small parcel tax, which would cost a property owner about $60 to $90 annually, and in exchange The City would take over responsibility for all street trees.  

City Planner Jon Swae, who is helping to draft the updated plan, told The City’s Urban Forestry Council last month that this environment is challenging for trees.

“The urban environment is a harsh place for trees to grow,” Swae said. “There is compact soil, very small root bases. We have very little building setbacks, if any building setbacks, so tree canopies aren’t allowed to grow and expand. We also have Muni overhead wires and PG&E wires. So they have a lot going against them.”

Other issues the plan will likely address is the lack of trees in certain neighborhoods.

“We have neighborhoods that are much greener than others, many streets without trees,” Swae said. “But we also have a really insufficient tree canopy.”

Almost 700,000 trees grow on both public and private property in San Francisco, according to the Planning Department.

The City’s urban canopy has increased by 1.8 percent for a total of 13.7 percent since the 2005 count, but it remains unclear if the increase was due to planting or a difference in counting methodology. The U.S. average is reportedly between 22 percent and 30 percent.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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