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Timber!: The City Has Given Up on Its Troublesome Trees. Now They're Your Problem. 

Tuesday, Dec 9 2014

In 2005, Mayor Gavin Newsom launched an aggressive plan called "Trees for Tomorrow" to plant 25,000 in this city over the next five years. In that time, San Francisco carried out an equally aggressive plan to, systematically, eviscerate the money allocated to maintaining street trees and liquidating the workforce designated to do so.

The solution to this obviously untenable situation was to seek higher office and flee San Francisco. That worked for Newsom at least.

Facing a shortfall of green, the Department of Public Works in 2011 began fobbing off its responsibility to care for the city's greenspace. Some 24,000 of San Francisco's street trees have been slated for transfer to the care of homeowners (joining the 65,000 trees homeowners were already liable for). This relinquishment included hundreds of the trees planted in the "Trees for Tomorrow" effort. "The city basically reneged on its commitment," sums up Supervisor Scott Wiener.

In San Francisco today, a tree planted in front of a home doesn't entirely belong to anyone. The homeowner is not allowed to remove it or even trim it in a manner the city deems improper, but is responsible for spending hundreds of dollars a year to maintain it — and is legally on the hook if it wrecks the sidewalk or sewer pipes or topples onto people and things. Many of these homeowners were assured the tree recently planted in front of their houses would be the responsibility of the city.

"How's that for a screwed-up system?" asks Dan Flanagan, the executive director of the city nonprofit Friends of the Urban Forest.

Urban trees, like urban structures, go through faddish waves that don't always withstand the test of time. Ficus trees popular decades ago are now proving a dangerous decoration.

The city's 2,700 remaining ficus street trees have roots seemingly designed to disrupt pavement and long, intertwined branches emanating from single, crucial points. If maintained only to allow walking room for pedestrians below, they become top-heavy. If deprived of water, they tend to suck up liquid quickly and become unstable.

The Department of Public Works recently eased the restrictions on removing the city's most problematic ficus trees. But that only means homeowners must pay several hundred dollars for the city to remove a tree that should never have been planted in the first place.

Wiener has been laboring, for years, to find some dedicated funding to make up the $15-$25 million yearly tree-maintenance shortfall. A parcel tax, however, would require a two-thirds vote. Obtaining that remains a beautiful dream.

"The system," says Wiener, "is just so bad in so many ways."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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