City Responsibility for Maintaining Street Trees
Makes it the city’s responsibility to maintain all street trees, repair sidewalks damaged by trees and assume liability for damages caused by neglect of trees; dedicates funding from the General Fund to pay for these responsibilities.
What the Measure Would Do
Proposition E would make it the City and County of San Francisco’s responsibility to maintain all street trees, repair sidewalks damaged by trees and assume liability for any property damage or injury caused by the city’s failure to maintain a street tree. This measure would pay for these costs through a $19 million set-aside from the General Fund, adjusted annually by the percentage increase or decrease in discretionary revenues. It would allow the city to grant $500,000 annually from this fund to the San Francisco Unified School District to maintain trees on its property. The level of funding would also cover maintenance costs for the 50,000 new trees the city aims to plant over the next 20 years to stem the current and ongoing decline of the city’s urban forest. Until January 2017, this measure would give the mayor the one-time authority to terminate this set-aside based on the city’s financial condition.
Who Maintains Street Trees?
Municipal governments in most major cities in the United States and elsewhere plant and maintain street trees in their jurisdictions. San Francisco is unusual in that the city historically planted trees only on certain major streets, such as Market Street and California Street (about 10,000 trees) and maintained about 25,000 privately planted street trees scattered around the city. The rest of the city’s 70,000 street trees and their adjacent sidewalks have always been the responsibility of private property owners to maintain.
Beginning in 2014, due to budget cuts that made it impossible for the Department of Public Works to properly maintain all of the trees in the city’s care, San Francisco adopted a policy of “relinquishment” to begin transferring responsibility for about 22,000 trees that it had been maintaining to property owners whose land abuts these trees. Over time, if this policy continues it will become the responsibility of property owners to maintain almost 90 percent of the city’s street trees and the sidewalks adjacent to them. Property owners are also liable for personal injury or property damage claims that may occur as a result of failing to maintain their trees and adjacent sidewalks.
This relinquishment program has been deeply unpopular, as it imposes the costs of tree maintenance and liability on people who may not want the trees, may not have interest in caring for them or may not have the means to do so. It has also attracted media attention to the city’s inconsistent approach to tree maintenance and liability. According to the San Francisco Department of Public Works, the cost of tree-related sidewalk repairs for property owners today can average around $3,000. Tree pruning can cost between $300 and $1,000 per pruning.
In 2015, the city adopted the Urban Forest Master Plan, which identified strategies to care for and maintain San Francisco’s street trees. Benefits of a healthy and growing tree canopy include providing clean air and habitat for birds, reducing stormwater runoff, increasing property values, calming traffic, reducing noise and contributing to reduced crime rates. The master plan found that San Francisco’s urban forest is declining and is already one of the smallest among large U.S. cities. Two key recommendations from the plan include establishing and fully funding a citywide street tree maintenance program to relieve property owners of the responsibility for tree maintenance and sidewalk repair, and centralizing the responsibility for 100 percent of street trees with the Department of Public Works.
The $19 million set-aside created by this charter amendment is expected to be funded by one of several revenue measures on the ballot that would increase income to the city’s General Fund. If none of these revenue measures pass, Prop. E gives the mayor one-time authority to terminate this commitment based on whether the city can pay its costs. This “kill switch” expires on January 1, 2017. The city currently funds urban forestry and tree-related sidewalk repair at about $6.5 million annually, so the set-aside represents a net increase of $12.5 million in the cost of this program.
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to place this measure on the ballot in San Francisco. The measure requires a simple majority (50 percent plus one vote) to pass.
This measure could allow the city to sustain and grow the urban forest, which is currently in decline, endangering the many benefits it provides to San Francisco’s residents, property owners and the environment.
Prop. E could improve fairness in the way street trees are maintained by making it the city’s responsibility to take care of all trees and assume liability for any damage they might cause. The current system is a confusing hybrid, where some trees are maintained by the city and some are not; many property owners don’t know they are responsible for street trees.
This measure could improve the quality of tree care and health, as many property owners are currently performing no tree care and others are hiring unqualified contractors who are damaging trees. This measure would end the unpopular practice of “relinquishment,” which has already resulted in tree damage and tree death due to some property owners’ unwillingness or inability to take care of sidewalk trees transferred from the city.
This measure could attract new resources for tree planting, which have been hard to secure in the past due to the city’s inability to prove that it has a viable and sustainable maintenance program.
Prop. E would create a set-aside from the General Fund and does not identify a specific source of revenue to pay for it. Set-asides tie the hands of future elected officials to make budgetary and management decisions.
Given that all of the supervisors and the mayor supported this measure, it does not have to be on the ballot as a charter amendment set-aside. City leaders could have provided a sufficient level of funding for a robust urban forestry program through the normal budgeting process, rather than consistently cutting the budget for tree care and forcing a policy of relinquishment.
San Francisco currently has a very poor street tree policy. It is unfair and confusing for property owners and has resulted in a diminished urban forest. Prop. E provides a policy solution: transferring the responsibility for tree maintenance back to the city and dedicating funding to sustain trees and maintain sidewalks. Prop. E funds tree maintenance through the General Fund, with the benefits to be broadly shared by everyone in the city. The process of developing the measure, which has unfolded over several years, considered many ways to remedy the current situation, with numerous studies recommending this approach.
Although SPUR does not consider set-asides a best practice, the amount dedicated by Prop. E is small and the issue meets our criteria that ballot setasides should support causes that do not compete well in the normal budget process.1 Trees have fared very poorly as a result of the current system and consistent underfunding, and this measure is the best chance to rectify that situation in the near future.