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Maintaining San Francisco's Trees -- Lots to Do and No Money

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A thriving urban forest is a key part of a great city and great neighborhoods. Trees help define neighborhoods. They make streets more walkable. They allow for greater absorption of water into the ground instead of our flood-prone sewer system. And, they reduce global warming.

Yet San Francisco devotes remarkably few resources to our city-owned trees. We have over 100,000 street trees, but two-thirds of those trees are the maintenance responsibility of adjacent property owners, even if the property owners didn't plant the trees, don't know how to care for them, and don't want them. DPW is now planning to release the remaining one-third to property owners for maintenance. It's not surprising that maintenance by property owners is spotty. We also make it quite complicated for people to maintain street trees, with a permitting system and hefty fines for going too far in pruning a tree. And, on top of it all, if a street tree owned by the city breaks up the surrounding sidewalk with its roots, the adjacent property owner is responsible for fixing the sidewalk.

Similarly, the Recreation & Parks Department -- which has a massive number of trees on its many park properties -- has so few arborists that it is able to inspect a given park tree every few decades. This creates a public safety hazard, since poorly maintained trees can fall or drop branches. A few years ago, an unmaintained tree in Stern Grove dropped a large branch on a woman and killed her. A few months ago, several large trees simply toppled over in Duboce Park, one of them smashing a car. Fortunately and by pure happenstance, no one was injured.

In the budget that the Board of Supervisors is about to adopt, I pursued funding for additional tree staffing for both the Department of Public Works and Rec & Park. I was able to persuade the Board to restore half of the $600,000 cut that had been proposed for DPW street tree maintenance, but I was unable to gain support for additional arborists for Rec & Park. Yet, even with a full restoration of funding for DPW and a few additional arborists for Rec & Park, we would not have nearly enough staffing to do an adequate job, let alone a great job, maintaining this critical city resource.

We need to develop a sustainable funding stream dedicated to tree maintenance. Otherwise, we will continue to de-prioritize tree maintenance, and tree budgets will continue to be expendable. One option that I'm exploring with DPW and Rec & Park is the possibility of a parcel tax or tree assessment district, by which property owners would pay an annual assessment (probably less than $100) to fully fund DPW and Rec & Park tree maintenance. In exchange for this assessment, DPW would assume responsibility for all or almost all street trees, thus relieving property owners of this unfair and expensive burden. In addition, Rec & Park would finally have the resources it needs to maintain our park trees.

Trees sometimes fall through the cracks at budget time, given the many needs we have as a city and given our limited resources. We need to focus on this critical city infrastructure and ensure that we continue to have a thriving urban forest.

Scott Wiener is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, representing District 8. His website is www.scottwiener.com.