Supe’s legislation would limit number of ficus trees Public Works could axe

District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen told Mission Local Tuesday that  her office will take an active role in negotiating between 24th Street ficus tree advocates and the city’s Public Works department. 

The supervisor said her office has been well aware of the years-long strife between community advocates hoping to spare dozens of ficus trees and the city agency pushing to axe them — “But, after all the community advocacy, Public Works didn’t move as much as we had hoped.” 

Her concern, she said, was largely with the discrepancies in the numbers. Public Works originally announced it would remove 77 trees. Then, after public outcry, reduced the number to 48. However, in early 2015, a consulting firm advised the city to remove only 16 trees. 

The 2015 recommendation came after the city paid ArborPro consultants $500,000 for a citywide tree risk assessment. (Calls and emails to ArborPro had not been returned by press time.)

“We should not be cutting down trees unless they pose a danger to the public,” Ronen said, echoing the concerns of many about falling limbs, breached sewer mains and buckling pavement. These and other dangers have been presented by Public Works at two community meetings and in “many public forums,” including the department’s website, notes department’s spokeswoman Nancy Sarieh. 

Ficus roots have done a number on the tile floors at El Tomate. Photo by Julian Mark.

Ronen shares those concerns, but questions the numbers. “We spent a significant amount of money on an expert consultant to do that analysis. That consultant came back and said, ’16 trees.’”

In its assumed role, Ronen’s office plans to hold meetings with community activists, such as the group of appellants who fought the decision of the Public Works department at the most recent Board of Appeals meeting.

But working with San Francisco Public Works is also key, Ronen said. “I talked to the director [Mohammed Nuru] about continuing the hearing last week so we had more time to work with the department. He agreed to do that, which I appreciate.” 

It’s difficult to tell a good ficus from a bad one. The city has determined the specimen on the right is potentially dangerous and must be removed, but the one on the left is fine. Some locals remain flummoxed. Photo by Annie Berman.

To that end, the supervisor said, she left Nuru a voice message to give him a “heads-up” about her intention to ask the city attorney to draft legislation at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting requiring an upper limit of 16 trees to be removed by Public Works. 

“We’re trying to play a problem-solving role,” Ronen aide Paul Monge told Mission Local. “Thankfully, we have a two-month window until March 11, which is when the next Board of Appeals hearing is scheduled, to really bring all the parties to the table and work out a plan around not just removal but also replanting that people feel very invested in and excited about.”

Update, Jan. 16: Following publication of this story, San Francisco Public Works claimed that its work with ArborPro was not as extensive as Ronen stated. To wit:

We did not pay ArborPro for a citywide tree risk assessment.  We paid them for an inventory. Very different. The primary purpose of the inventory (or census) was to record the species, size and location of all 125,000 street trees. While ArborPro made basic maintenance recommendations, they did not perform tree assessments at all, and certainly did not perform risk assessments. ArborPro spent a few minutes at each tree – at most. Our certified professional arborists spent many hours re-assessing these trees on 24th Street. 

In addition, the inventory was completed in 2016 for most of the trees along 24th Street, and a lot can change in three years.