Public Works asking more residents to take custody, pay for tree care 

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The City continues to plant and replace trees on streets, yet it’s having difficulty paying for the plants’ maintenance. That means homeowners are increasingly being asked to shoulder the burden.

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“The fact is, we are unable to sustain a workforce to maintain these trees,” said Mohammed Nuru, director of the Department of Public Works. “Trees are incredibly important resources for The City, so we’re asking for help from our citizens in maintaining them.”

Public Works recently made its annual funding request for more than $1 million from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority for its tree planting and maintenance program. The funding will mostly go toward maintenance of existing greenery, but some will pay to replace 375 trees that were felled in the past year.

With a lean budget, however, Public Works is pursuing a policy of transferring maintenance of the public trees to private homeowners — who have no say in whether the trees are planted in the first place.

Henry Karnilowicz, president of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute, called it outrageous that The City uses taxpayer money to plant trees, then transfers maintenance responsibilities.

“We have no input at all in the decision to plant these trees, and now they’re telling us that we have to pay for them?” Karnilowicz said. “A public tree is a public tree, and the public should collectively be responsible for it.”

So far, about 65,000 trees out of 100,000 total have been put under the care of private homeowners, according to Public Works, and another 24,000 are slated be transferred in the next seven years.

Nuru said it was important to replace the fallen trees, which increase property values. And transferring maintenance will restore equity for homeowners, he said, because some are already paying for the public
trees while others are not.

Public Works spokeswoman Gloria Chan said it costs about $300 to $1,000 for a tree to be professionally pruned, which is required every three to five years.

Karnilowicz said homeowners have no problems with trees; they just don’t like that they have no control over the policy to plant them.

Even with San Francisco increasing its tree population, it still falls well below the greening standards of other major urban centers, according to Mei Ling Hui, an urban forest associate with the Department of the Environment. San Francisco’s canopy cover — a measure that illustrates how much of The City is shaded by trees — is only 12 percent, roughly half that of New York City, Hui said.

Planting more trees has many benefits, Hui said, including reductions in particulate matter and carbon emissions.
But they also have a significant economic impact.

While former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s ambitious goal to plant 35,000 new trees in a five-year period was accomplished, the roots of those trees have wreaked havoc on sidewalks. In 2009, The City faced a
$17 million backlog for repairs for sidewalk damage caused largely by root outgrowth.

Nuru said Public Works has reduced that shortfall in the past few years.

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Will Reisman

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