Falling ficuses prompt looser tree removal rules

After numerous reports of large water-laden ficus tree branches falling onto streets, sidewalks, vehicles and even a pedestrian in San Francisco in recent weeks, The City is now making it easier to remove such hazardous trees.

San Francisco Department of Public Works director Mohammed Nuru signed a new order easing the removal of individual ficus street trees, both public and private, that pose a risk of failure. The new order relaxes the removal standards for ficus trees, due to their susceptibility to limb failure or collapse.

The announcement comes just over two weeks after a pedestrian was seriously injured when a ficus tree branch fell onto Potrero Avenue.

Many of San Francisco’s trees were planted 40 or 50 years ago, Rachel Gordon, the director of communications and policy at San Francisco Public Works said, and while they provide big, beautiful canopies and green leaves year-round, they get very large and have co-dominant limbs that make them structurally weak as they grow older.

Nuru said order was issued “out of an abundance of caution because at the end of the day, protecting public safety is paramount.” For any tree removed, a more suitable type of tree will be planted in its place, according to Public Works.

The owners of privately maintained ficus street trees will have to apply for a tree-removal permit and must pay $339 administrative fee, plus the cost of the tree’s removal.

According to the director’s order, for a ficus tree to meet the removal standard it must meet at least one of the specified criterions. The ficus tree must be at least 50 feet tall or have competing/co-dominant trunks, a live canopy that makes up less than 30 percent of the tree or is in decline, roots that have been pruned at least twice, a history of limb failure and a canopy or main trunk that conflict with power lines or streetlights.

According to Public Works, the relaxed guidelines do not guarantee a permit for removal, but increase the likelihood of its approval. Once Public Works receives a tree removal request, a qualified arborists will be dispatched to assess the tree.

If recommended for removal, a public notice will be posted, allowing 30 days for anyone to file a formal protest, which will automatically trigger a subsequent public hearing before an administrative officer, who will then determined whether the tree will be removed or not.

For the last few years, citing a lack of resources for tree maintenance, the Department of Public Works has been in the process of transferring the maintenance responsibility for the majority of its 105,000 street trees into the care of private-property owners, despite public demand for a dedicated funding stream for the public maintenance of the city’s urban forest.

The San Francisco Urban Forest Plan, crafted by Public Works in collaboration with the San Francisco Planning Department, Friends of the Urban Forest, Urban Forestry Council and San Francisco Recreation and Parks, identifies policies and strategies to proactively manage and grow the city’s street trees population.

The goal of the Urban Forest Plan is to create a thriving urban forest and ensure that trees, which are often thought of merely as an aesthetic part of The City, continue to serve their much-needed environmental, economic and social purposes.

Gordon said last month that the large branches of the tree on Potrero Avenue that fell on a pedestrian, vehicles and Muni lines had in fact been pruned just the month before. But Gordon said that with only ten full-time arborists and thousands of trees overdue for pruning, many trees are indeed a hazard on San Francisco streets.

Gordon said due to budget cuts to Public Works’ urban forestry staff, many trees have been pruned only once every 10 to 12 years, instead of every one to five years, depending on the species and location of the tree.

San Francisco Public Works “does not have the resources to prune and maintain trees at a frequency recommended by the tree care industry to sustain their health,” according to the Public Works website.

In addition to relaxing the criteria for tree removal, San Francisco Public Works is also in the process of unloading its tree burden onto other agencies, such as San Francisco Recreation and Park, the San Francisco Housing Authority, as well as the owners of private residences in The City.

Gordon said that while Public Works doesn’t have the budget to care for the trees, and needs about $20 million a year to bring about a more robust pruning cycle while also allowing the department to continue planting new trees.

Additionally, transferring ownership to property owners has its obstacles, as some are unable or unwilling to care for the trees on their property. Gordon said that caring for trees individually, instead of en masse, also costs more.

She said unfortunately, the funding solution simply hasn’t emerged yet. Gordon said following the pedestrian injury in November:

“Frankly, a lot of what we do is triage.”

A lack of tree maintenance will also deprive the city of the benefits provided by trees, such as storm water filtration, decreased air pollution and greenhouse gases, increased property values, wildlife habitat, among others.

Dan Flanagan, executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest, is urging City Hall to create a dedicated funding stream for street tree maintenance. He said that by not properly maintaining and funding an urban forest program, San Francisco is “endangering all who live in, work in, and visit The City.”

Anyone needing to report a tree hazard should call 311 and anyone applying for a permit to remove a hazardous tree can do so online via the SF Public Works website at www.sfdpw.org.