Voters may have final say on who cares for street trees

James Riley wonders why no one at City Hall will listen to him when he argues he shouldn’t have to assume responsibility of the three 40-­year-old Blackwood Acacia trees planted by The City outside of his Lake Street home.

Riley, 53, is among the thousands of homeowners who in recent years the Department of Public Works has selected to transfer the maintenance and liability of street trees adjacent to their homes as a cost-saving measure.

Since 2012, The City has forced property owners to take care of 7,605 trees and plans to transfer thousands more in the coming years.

“It’s frustrating that nobody listens,” Riley said during a recent interview with the San Francisco Examiner outside his home, which he has owned since 1998. “The City is not only getting out of the responsibility of maintaining them, they are dumping the liability that goes with it.”

As if the liability weren’t enough, the trees on Riley’s property are on The City’s do-not-plant list — and the roots upend the sidewalk.

Riley would have to repair those damages at his own cost, and he worries the trees or a branch might fall and hurt passersby or damage a car.

But Riley’s woes may come to an end at the ballot box next year. Supervisor John Avalos said Tuesday that he requested the City Attorney draft a charter amendment that would require The City to take care of all the street trees, banning the transfer of trees to private property owners.

Avalos said he wants to place it on the November ballot. He also said he wants to couple it with a separate carbon tax proposal to generate more revenue.

“I hear from a lot of residents in my district who are very concerned. Everyone who receives a [tree transfer] letter is just irate,” Avalos said. “You don’t even have to do a poll to know that, citywide, people expect The City to do it.”

The City’s own 2014 Urban Forestry Plan identifies the flaws in the program. “Widely unpopular with the public, this approach puts trees at further risk for neglect and potential hazards,” the report says.

The report also notes that San Francisco doesn’t compare well with other cities when it comes to the urban canopy. “San Francisco has one of the smallest tree canopies of any major U.S. city. San Francisco’s tree canopy (13.7 percent) is smaller than Chicago (17 percent), Los Angeles (21 percent), and New York City (24 percent).”

There are 100,000 places where street trees could be planted, the report said.

Avalos said his charter amendment would include a provision to require The City to expand the urban canopy in line with its climate action plan, 25 percent by 2030. It may also include an apprenticeship program.

Riley has reached out via email to various supervisors. “Yes, I’m a critic of this system and trying to change it,” Supervisor Scott Wiener replied to an email last month to Riley.

On Tuesday, Wiener said he didn’t agree with Avalos’ approach.

Wiener said mandating that The City take back the trees without “dedicated funding” would “result in continued deterioration of our urban forest.”

Instead, Wiener said he was examining placing on the November ballot a parcel tax of about $30 for single-family homes, $20 for condos and larger amounts for commercial buildings. If approved, The City would take back responsibility of all the street trees with those revenues earmarked for tree maintenance and related sidewalk repairs.

Riley said he was all for Avalos’ proposal. Both Avalos and Riley seemed skeptical a parcel tax would meet with approval by voters.

Caring for the 105,000 street trees, which are pruned every three to five years, would cost about $20 million annually, said Department of Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon. Pruning is currently “closer to a 10­- to 12­-year pruning cycle.”

Riley says annual pruning will set him back at least $2,000.

Gordon said merely stopping the transfer of the street trees wouldn’t address the funding shortage. “We are hoping for a sustained funding source so that The City can assume responsibility for all street tree care to better ensure their long­-term health and viability,” Gordon said.

Avalos argues even without new tax revenue, private property owners shouldn’t be on the hook.

“We have unprecedented revenue and we still haven’t figured how to take care of the trees and we are fobbing them off on property owners to take care of,” Avalos said.

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