Press Release: Supervisor Wiener to Introduce Ballot Measure to Fix San Francisco’s Broken Street Policy

November ballot measure ends dysfunctional City program that transfers street tree responsibility and liability to private property owners; requires City to assume maintenance responsibility and liability for all street trees and sidewalk damaged caused by trees throughout San Francisco; and pays for new City responsibilities through combination of lock box City funding and a dedicated progressive parcel tax

San Francisco Today Supervisor Scott Wiener, in partnership with Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF), will introduce a ballot measure for the November election to permanently fix San Francisco’s broken street tree policy. The ballot measure requires the City to assume responsibility for all street trees — including tree maintenance, sidewalk damage, and liability — and provides a long-term dedicated funding source to do so.

The City’s current street tree policy — subject to widespread, justifiable criticism — requires fronting property owners to maintain and be liable for adjacent street trees and sidewalk damage, whether or not the owners planted the tree, whether or not they want the tree, and whether or not they have the financial resources to care for the tree. This unfair responsibility can cost property owners hundreds or thousands of dollars on a regular basis.

The proposed ballot measure halts the transfer of responsibility of street trees to property owners and requires the City to take back every street tree and assume maintenance responsibility (for both trees and sidewalk damage), as well as assume liability.

The measure funds this additional City responsibility by creating an innovative dedicated funding source, specifically, a combination of mandatory general fund set-aside — representing what the city has, on average, spent on street trees over the past decade — and a progressive parcel tax of about $29.50 for condo owners, $35 for owners of most single family homes and small apartment buildings, and more for larger commercial buildings. Many property owners will spend significantly less on the parcel tax than they currently do maintaining trees, fixing sidewalks, and dealing with liability claims. The general fund set-aside will be a mandatory obligation in the City budget that cannot be reduced by the Mayor or the Board of Supervisors, so that the accompanying parcel tax doesn’t become the sole funding source for maintenance of our street trees.

The parcel tax is explicitly conditioned on the City taking back and retaining responsibility for all street trees. If the City fails to take back and maintain the trees, the parcel tax would be canceled.

“Trees are critical for our environment, health, and quality of life, yet for nearly 40 years, San Francisco has failed in funding the basic task of maintaining our urban forest,” said Supervisor Wiener, who has been working on this issue with Friends of the Urban Forest for almost six years. “We now have a chance to correct course and create a vibrant and growing tree canopy for all residents. City Hall has proven over and over again that it is incapable of fixing this problem. This ballot measure will allow voters to fix the problem once and for all, by creating lock-box funding and mandating that the City take back and care for all of the street trees. San Francisco should be the greenest city in America. It’s time to put our money where our mouth is and fund our urban forest once and for all.”

San Francisco has approximately 105,000 street trees planted in sidewalks and medians over the decades by the City, neighbors, and non-profit partners. About one third of those trees are currently maintained by the City. Supervisor Wiener’s ballot measure requires San Francisco Public Works to assume maintenance responsibility for all street trees and provides sufficient resources to properly maintain both the existing tree population plus a 50 percent expansion of the number of street trees (to approximately 155,000). The ballot measure also contributes to the San Francisco Unified School District to support greening on public school properties.

“Right now, more than 6,000 sidewalks in San Francisco are in need of repair because of damage caused by tree roots,” said Dan Flanagan, Executive Director of the Friends of the Urban Forest and Chair of the San Francisco Urban Forestry Council. “It’s unacceptable that the City expects homeowners to be responsible for street trees and liable for tree-related sidewalk falls. San Francisco should maintain its street trees and sidewalks like other cities do, and that’s what this measure will accomplish. Friends of the Urban Forest urges all San Franciscans to support it.”

By requiring the City to maintain trees and assume liability for tree-related issues, the measure would relieve property owners of these burdens. This includes repairing sidewalk damage caused by roots or any legal liability associated with the trees or sidewalk damage.

“Creating a sustainable funding source for the care and growth of our urban forest is an important investment in our neighborhoods and the environment, and is long overdue. With the adequate funding that this measure would provide, the City could ensure uniformity of street tree maintenance,” said San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru. “I’m grateful for Supervisor Wiener’s leadership on this initiative.”

For more than a year, Supervisor Wiener has been convening a Street Tree Working Group to develop and formulate this ballot measure. Represented at these meetings were urban forest advocates, small and large property owner organizations, neighborhood representatives, and environmental groups.

The maintenance and upkeep for these trees will be paid by a combination of a general fund set aside and a progressive parcel tax based on the size of street frontage of each parcel. The purpose of this blended approach is to acknowledge that the city should be spending a portion of its current tax revenues on trees before asking voters to contribute more. The general fund set-aside will be $8 million a year, representing the average of what the City has spent on fixing sidewalks and maintaining street trees over the past decade. The parcel tax — estimated to contribute $10.8 million annually — will be structured so that smaller properties pay at a lower rate than larger properties. Specifically, the annual tax rates will be:

• For condos and parcels with less than 25 feet of street frontage: $29.50

• For parcels with between 25 but less than 150 feet of street frontage: $1.42/ linear foot of frontage

• For parcels with 150 feet of street frontage and more; $2/linear foot of frontage

The median street frontage of a residential lot in San Francisco is 25 feet, which means that most residential properties will pay about $35 a year. Large downtown commercial office buildings could pay as much as $2,000 a year.

“We need to fix the City’s broken policy of requiring property owners to take care of street trees in front of their properties and pay for any damage they cause,” said Noni Richen, President of Small Property Owners of San Francisco. “This measure will ensure proper maintenance of these street trees without unfairly burdening certain property owners just because they have a tree in front of their property.

The ballot measure will be heard in the Budget and Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors. The full Board of Supervisors must vote on the measure by the end of July to place it on the November ballot. The measure requires a 2/3rd vote in favor to pass.

CA State Senator. Urbanist. Environmentalist. Advocate for transit, housing, clean energy, criminal justice reform, health, ending poverty. Democrat. 🏳️‍🌈

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