SF Apartment : June 2017
A New Leaf
by Mohammed Nuru
The benefits of street trees are well known: They produce oxygen; clean the air; reduce flooding; provide habitat for birds, bees and butterflies; create beauty; slow traffic; bolster curb appeal; and add to the overall livability of our neighborhoods. But when it comes to paying for their care in San Francisco, the goodwill that they should generate at times has been tested. However, that is about to change.
Starting July 1 of this year, San Francisco property owners no longer will be responsible for street tree care under a transformational plan approved overwhelmingly by city voters.
Proposition E on the November 2016 ballot will make San Francisco Public Works responsible for the regular maintenance of all street trees and for repairing all tree-related sidewalk damage.
A $19 million annual General Fund set-aside will pay for the work and, for the first time in decades, put San Francisco’s street trees on a path toward healthy sustainability.
Up until now, property owners have been shouldering responsibility for most of the street trees, with nearly two thirds of them in private hands. San Francisco Public Works, meanwhile, had maintenance responsibility for the remaining third and, due to budget constraints over the past several years, had been shifting more of the responsibility to reluctant property owners.
As a result, street trees were maintained inconsistently—at best—and many property owners felt unfairly burdened.
In addition, the potential of growing a vital urban forest was never realized. I am hopeful that will change under Proposition E and the benefits of street trees will blossom.
We now know from the recently released EveryTreeSF tree census that we have nearly 125,000 street trees in San Francisco. That is 20,000-plus more than previous estimates. The survey also showed there are more than five hundred species. The data not only identifies for the first time the exact locations, species and conditions of every tree, but also it pinpoints potential sites for future plantings.
And don’t take my word for it; see for yourself. You can check out the EveryTreeSF census data on a nifty interactive map at UrbanForestMap.org.
The information that was gathered is an invaluable tool we can use as we take the next big step in San Francisco to care for our urban forest. The data will drive our priorities and resources as we begin to implement Proposition E.
The impetus for Proposition E grew from the City’s Urban Forest Plan, which was adopted in 2015, and provides a long-term vision and strategy for San Francisco’s street trees.
One of the major initiatives outlined in the comprehensive plan called for San Francisco to establish a Citywide Street Tree Maintenance Program that would have Public Works take over maintenance for all of San Francisco’s street trees. That idea—rich in research derived from jurisdictions across the country—was that street trees maintained by municipal programs have a higher standard of care and are in better condition than those that relied on property owners for maintenance.
The aspirational goal would not be achieved in San Francisco without an infusion of dedicated funding. A city-commissioned economic study found that it would cost Public Works $19 million each year to properly maintain all street trees in the city. This amount is almost triple what the department has been spending otherwise.
Elected officials considered several funding strategies and opted to pursue a voter-approved City Charter amendment to set aside an annual stream of dedicated funding for tree maintenance and tree-related sidewalk repair.
The nonprofit organization Friends of the Urban Forest took the lead in rallying community and political support for the funding measure. Their hard work paid off, with Proposition E passing with 79 percent support. Proposition E takes effect July 1, 2017. Below are some frequently asked questions about what is to come.
What is Proposition E?
Prop. E was a measure on the November 8, 2016 San Francisco ballot regarding responsibility for maintaining street trees and surrounding sidewalks. Voters were asked if the city should amend the City Charter to transfer responsibility from property owners to the city for maintaining trees on sidewalks adjacent to their property, as well as for repairing sidewalks damaged by the trees. The city would pay for this by setting aside $19 million per year from its General Fund, adjusted annually based on city revenues. Prop. E passed with 79 percent of the voters’ support.
Under Prop. E, will my taxes go up?
No. There are no new taxes as a direct result of Prop. E.
Where does the funding come from?
Prop. E establishes a $19 million annual set-aside in the city’s General Fund. The General Fund is supported by local taxes, the state and federal government, local funds, reserves, and charges for services. The General Fund contributes to many city departments including Public Health, Recreation and Park, the Human Service Agency, and many more.
If I want to continue to prune my tree, can I opt out?
Yes. As long as you’re caring for your tree according to city standards, you can opt out. For more information on the city standards for street tree care, visit http://sfpublicworks.org/trees.
What if I received a notice to prune my tree or repair my sidewalk after Prop. E passed but before July 1? Am I still responsible?
Yes. Any property owner who has been put on notice is still responsible to perform the required work.
Now that Prop. E has passed, when will my tree be pruned?
The city officially takes responsibility of street trees beginning July 1, 2017. We will start with the trees that are in the worst conditions first. The city is currently assessing the data from a recently completed street tree census. The pruning of street trees will be prioritized based on safety considerations, to correct structural flaws, and to gain necessary clearances for overhead wires, traffic signs and signals, adjacent buildings, and traffic flow. This initial process is expected to take several years. The routine pruning of street trees is anticipated to begin in 2019.
How often will my tree be pruned?
Trees will be pruned on a three- to five-year pruning cycle, based on the species and needs of each individual tree. A pruning schedule will be posted on the Public Works website in July 2018.
Will I still be responsible for my sidewalk?
Yes and no. Property owners still will be responsible for sidewalk damage that is not caused by trees, but the city will be responsible for any tree-related sidewalk damage. For more information on city standards for sidewalk maintenance, visit http://sfpublicworks.org/services/permits/sidewalk-repair.
Will I still be responsible for my sewer?
Yes. The side sewer lateral is still the responsibility of the property owner. Although tree roots can make a sewer leak worse, roots generally do not cause damage to sewers, and so the responsibility remains with the property owner.
Is the city going to do all the work with city staff?
No. We are anticipating that about half the work will be performed by certified arborist and cement-work contractors.
Does Prop. E. pay for tree planting, too?
No. Funding established by Prop. E only covers tree and sidewalk maintenance. However, Public Works will continue to work with outside partners, including Friends of the Urban Forest, to ensure that replacement trees are planted and that the city can grow the street tree population by 50 percent.
How will we know how the funding is being spent?
Prop. E requires that Public Works provides an annual report on how the funding is spent and what work is completed.
Will I still need a permit to plant a tree?
Yes. You still will need a permit to plant a tree in the public right of way.
Will I need a permit to remove a tree?
If the tree is in poor health or structurally unsound, the city will remove the tree following the public notification process. If you wish to remove a tree for another reason, you can apply for a permit to remove the tree and go through the city’s tree-removal permitting process.
What if I see someone damaging a tree?
You can call 311. If you feel the tree is being severely damaged, call the police non-emergency line at (415) 553-0123.
Where can I get more information?
For more information about street trees in general, contact San Francisco Public Works Bureau of Urban Forestry at (415) 554-6700 or sfpublicworks.org/trees. To apply for a permit to plant a street tree or to have one removed, visit http://sfpublicworks.org/services/permits/street-trees-planting.
Mohammed Nuru is the director of San Francisco Public Works.