Under a measure that could be placed on the November ballot, The City would take back responsibility for maintaining all street trees in San Francisco. (Mike Koozmin/2015 S.F. Examiner file photo)

SF may reclaim responsibility for urban forest

San Francisco’s urban forest is in crisis, but a solution is in reach, thanks to the leadership of supervisors Scott Wiener and Eric Mar.

Over the last 30 years, The City has cut its urban forestry budget so deeply that our tree population — already among the lowest per-acre for a major U.S. city — is shrinking. The City’s practice of transferring responsibility for street tree maintenance to property owners has been wildly unpopular, and The City has badly neglected the trees for which it’s still responsible. We’re all endangered by falling trees and limbs.

Meanwhile, sidewalks have been broken by tree roots, and many property owners don’t realize The City holds them responsible for repairing them, or they lack the resources or desire to do so. They face sizable bills and liability for trip-and-fall lawsuits. And seniors and people with disabilities face mobility hazards.

Fortunately, the Board of Supervisors is considering placing a measure — crafted largely by Friends of the Urban Forest and Supervisor Wiener — on the November ballot.

Under this measure, The City would take back responsibility for maintaining all street trees, fix all tree-related sidewalk damage, assume liability for trip-and-fall lawsuits and support the care of trees in public schoolyards.

The measure would raise $19 million per year through a budget set-aside and a progressive parcel tax ($36.75 per year for a typical single-family home), and would require The City to use those funds to properly maintain all of San Francisco’s street trees and public sidewalks, like other cities do.

Supervisors Wiener and John Avalos were early advocates of the need to find a solution. Supervisors Wiener and Mar, who both have long track records of support for environmental issues, have co-sponsored the measure and are championing it in their districts and throughout The City.

We’re counting on their colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to agree to place the measure on the November ballot — and then it’s up to the voters.

We worked hard to ensure the measure will be an effective and economical solution to a serious problem. The measure reflects key recommendations in the San Francisco Urban Forest Plan, a master plan for The City to create a more sustainable urban forest, which was adopted unanimously by the Board of Supervisors last year. In drafting that plan, we consulted with city planners and members of the community, and we researched best practices in urban forestry throughout the nation.

Fixing the urban forest is one of the best local things we can do for the environment, and trees are an essential part of urban infrastructure, especially in mitigating stormwater runoff. In fact, they’re the only part of the urban infrastructure that increases — rather than decreases — in value every year. The U.S. Forest Service once estimated that San Francisco’s urban forest was worth $1.7 billion and provided $100 million in benefits annually.

But that doesn’t mean we can count on all San Franciscans to agree it’s worth saving. Some people just oppose all taxes, regardless of their purpose or progressive structure. Others don’t think trees are essential to a healthy city and simply take the urban forest for granted.

To become law, the measure must win at least two thirds of the vote, because it includes a tax. This will be a steep hill to climb, but polling conducted this spring showed it’s possible. And it would be a giant step toward the model urban forest that San Franciscans deserve.

Dan Flanagan is executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest and is chair of the San Francisco Urban Forestry Council.

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