The city has no money for trees, according to the Department of Public Works. Property owners want that remedied and so does the department, but until that happens, Public Works will continue to transfer 24,000 city trees to make property owners liable for their care and any ensuing accidents.
In its third year, the Tree Maintenance Transfer Plan, which transfers responsibility for street trees from the city to fronting property owners, is now drawing the ire of a group of 35 Mission residents calling themselves the Friends of Folsom Street Trees.
“This is a very, very straightforward issue,” said Aaron Wade from the Folsom tree group. “Forcing citizens who are not only not prepared to deal with the liability issues arising from lawsuits dealing with these trees, but who are also ill-equipped to care for these trees – we’re just increasing public liability,” he said.
The group sent a letter to DPW director Mohammed Nuru on May 17 complaining about the program, asking that it be stopped.
Rachel Gordon, a spokesperson for the department, said that with adequate funding they would willingly cease the program.
“We wish we didn’t have to do this. The ultimate goal is to take over all street trees in the city — that’s our goal, that’s our hope. We think it would be best for the trees and best for the city,” she said. “If we got sufficient funding to take care of the trees, then we would stop the program.”
For its part, the Friends of Folsom Street Trees is working on this. Wade said that he had just met with a Campos aide who told him Campos and other supervisors are “100 percent behind properly funded tree care” and that they were seeking to get him connected to the mayor’s office.
“This issue is very straightforward,” he repeated. “To everybody this makes sense.”
Until that happens, however, the trees will continue to be transferred.
Under the transfer plan, property owners become liable for the care of trees in front of their property. This means maintaining their trees — to the tune of $300 to $1000 per arborist visit, according to an estimate by the Department of Public Works. Moreover, property owners will be liable for any damage to persons or property from falling branches or overgrown roots.
“The DPW does not discuss that this plan makes property owners liable for public safety and damage caused by the street trees that the DPW planted,” wrote the group in its letter to Director Nuru.
In the attachment to Supervisor David Campos, the group speculated that property owner liability may cause residents to destroy trees or even shut down city events. “What will happen to the much-loved Folsom Street Fair if residents discover that they are personally liable for the physical safety of thousands of fair attendees?” the group asked.
Gordon said that property owners “can’t just cut down a tree.” To do so, they would still have to obtain permits. If a tree is destroyed or damaged, property owner will still face fines.
She agreed, however, that owners will be liable for ill-maintained trees — something that was not true as long as the city was in charge of maintaining them. “If [a branch] were to hit a car or person, the property owner would be responsible or liable for that as well,” Gordon said.
The Folsom group writes the transfer plan was created during a financial crisis and that it should be revised since the “city’s tax base is healthier than ever.”
Gordon said, however, that the department has not felt the budgetary recovery and has gotten only one additional tree crew — not enough to regularly maintain street trees.
“We’re only responding to emergencies or customer calls as is. We’re not there yet. We’re not whole,” Gordon said.
While the Folsom group asked Campos to sufficiently fund the department, Gordon says that hasn’t happened. Moreover, she acknowledged the undesirable nature of the transfer program.
“This is not the best program, but it is the most workable,” she said. “We’re hoping the city will come up with a much more sustainable tree funding source.”
At its current level of funding, the Urban Forestry staff has only been able to prune trees on a 10-12 year cycle rather than the recommended three to five year cycles. This can cause “limb failures which can threaten public safety and damage property” the department has said.
Gordon added that the department is currently only able to respond to emergencies or resident requests and that the current ad hoc response to tree maintenance is far worse for tree health than regular maintenance. Because the Department of Public Works is unable to sustain maintenance operations, it is best if the trees were handed over to private hands, she added.
In total, San Francisco has some 100,000 street trees, with property owners already responsible for 60,000 of them. Starting in 2012, 24,000 of the remaining 40,000 city-maintained trees were slated to be transferred under the transfer plan, scheduled to be completed by 2019. Already some 5,300 trees have been transferred to private hands, with another 2,900 posted for transfer.
Property owners are alerted to their tree-owning status via a posting on the tree, but trees deemed unhealthy or with existing sidewalk damage are not eligible for transfer.