City Outsources Lundys Landing Tree Problem to Irate Bernal Neighbor

Lundystrees2e2

This year, San Francisco’s Department of Public Works has been pursuing a euphemistically-named Tree Maintenance Transfer Plan that makes San Francisco homeowners responsible for tens of thousands of streetside trees that were, until recently, maintained by the city.

DPW says the crux of the plan is to “standardize maintenance responsibility such that, in general, fronting property owners will be responsible for the maintenance of street trees in the public right of way.” In plainspeak, DPW is basically outsourcing its tree problem to taxpayers, under force of law.

That’s how Neighbor Laura Gold of Lundys Lane, a schoolteacher at Buena Vista Horace Mann, ended up getting hit with a massive tree-maintenance bill recently.  Neighbor Laura tells Bernalwood:

We are fighting the city’s unfair assignment of tree care to the neighbors on Lundy’s Landing.

We all want a green city with an appropriate canopy. That is one of the many reasons we promptly pay our city taxes and support new ones when they are designed to beautify or improve our city. However, this shifting of responsibilities to citizens puts an unfair burden on already strained wallets. It also makes public spaces unsafe as homeowners scrape to come up with piecemeal solutions for city streets, easements and open spaces. Our budget is already strained by having to pay for the costs of replacing the sidewalk in front of our house and by caring for the street tree near our front door. We, in no way, can afford to take on the city’s responsibility nor its liability for a large shared public area that falls between our house and several of our neighbors.

I am a public school teacher in the Mission. I work 10-12 hour days. I make less than $3800 a month; my husband and I have put thousands of dollars of our own money and countless hours of our free time into providing materials (books, school supplies, snacks) for my classroom, since despite the fact that I work with kids whose families lack the basics to survive in this city, San Francisco has decided that it doesn’t want to take responsibility for them.

Now, it seems like city government has also abdicated its responsibility to the homeowners. A year ago, it was reported that due to high tax revenues, San Francisco was running a budget surplus of $22 million dollars — where is the money in this city going? It’s not helping the kids, and it’s not providing basic services to homeowners that other cities take for granted. Is it to further subsidize Google buses at the expense of the neighborhoods? I don’t teach math, but I know when things don’t add up.

Here is what my husband and I have done so far:

1) We have emailed and called Director Mohammed Nuru of DPW and requested a meeting and had no reply or return of our calls. Instead we have received yet another computer generated letter saying the trees are our problem. (see email below and feel free to quote as needed),

2) We have also contacted Supervisor Campos’s office, and while we have had responses, we have no evidence that anything is in the works, and the clock is ticking. (we were informed in a letter dated 10/30 we had 30 days to deal with the issue), and finally we have contacted people at the SF Chronicle, and are hoping they, too, can raise awareness about the issue.

Apparently both Supervisors Avalos and Weiner are taking up the cause,  The issue may end up on the ballot next year.

At what point does city government stop existing to benefit the citizens, and instead exist to provide a steady source of income for a few powerful people? What does that make the rest of us who thought we were participating in the San Francisco community, not working for San Francisco, Inc.?

This is the letter I sent to Director Nuru:

From: lauragold
To: “Mohammed Nuru”
Cc: “David Campos”
Sent: Sunday, November 8, 2015 2:14:40 PM
Subject: Trees on Lundy’s Landing Public Space

Dear Director Nuru –

I am writing to request an immediate meeting with you at Lundy’s Landing (DPW property at Lundy’s Lane and Esmeralda) with regard to our ongoing request for the city to maintain its trees on its land, and the patently false posting of signs designating that the owners have “requested to remove” the trees in 30 days from city land.

As I have indicated in my 311 request, we are asking the City of San Francisco to honor their responsibilities. As I indicated in my 311 response:

1) This is not our property. It is the City of San Francisco’s property. It is listed as a street and therefore the City of San Francisco’s obligation.
2) We did not plant these trees, put in stairs, etc. It belongs to the city.
3) We pay taxes for the care of public space. This is public space and therefore not our responsibility as homeowners.
4) Finally, and perhaps most insultingly, the city is asking us to request and pay for a permit to do work on THEIR land. We do not plan to request this permit.

I am also a city employee. A public school teacher that can barely afford to live here and pay taxes. I cannot afford to take on the city’s multi thousand dollar obligation.

I look forward to hearing from your office in the next 48 hours in order to arrange a meeting.

Yours,

Laura Belfiglio Gold
Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8
Teacher, 7th grade, National Board Certified Teacher

PHOTO: The tree assigned to Neighbor Laura, by Neighbor Laura

41 thoughts on “City Outsources Lundys Landing Tree Problem to Irate Bernal Neighbor

  1. This is the perfect microcosm of how DPW and The City “works”. Total jokers, with Campos the ringleader of the circus. They refuse to do anything until you make a ton of noise. Very sad.

  2. Good luck Laura! I completely agree that it’s totally unfair. Unfortunately, our leaders are only interested in pandering to the tenant vote and small property owners get the shaft time and again. The city’s position on street trees is ridiculous. You don’t own the trees, you didn’t plant them, you can’t remove them, they are a public good, BUT they are your financial responsibility?? Ridiculous.

    Don’t get me started on the sidewalks. I recently got cited by the city for cracks in my sidewalk. Nothing you would trip over, just cracks. I was able to get out there and patch it all myself in an afternoon, but I had to pay the city $180 for a permit for the privilege of patching a public sidewalk. Ridiculous.

  3. Wow. Unbelievable. It does beg the question, “where is the money going exactly?” because you are right, it’s not going into our school system either. Why exactly are we paying taxes when the very things they are supposed to pay for are being shifted onto us as individuals. Grrr.

  4. Thanks to this new policy, we can look forward to more neglected, diseased trees and gradual erosion of the decades of progress on SF’s tree coverage.

  5. This is insane. We recently paid several thousand dollars to have our sidewalk repaired too, including paying the city for a permit to do work the city forced us to do. The sidewalks were fine beforehand of-course. That was a total scam, city workers cruisiing around Bernal marking bits of sidewalk that they claimed required repairs followed closely by several contractors handing out flyers offering to do the work. I wouldn’t be surprised if the city employees were getting kickbacks or moonlighting for the contractors.

    The city also requires us to trim the tree in front of our house, and to add insult to injury several of our neighbors were fined for timming the fast growing trees too much. You just can’t win with these guys.

  6. Just to add greater context to this story (and because I’m a neighbor), the city is asking Laura and her family to pay for the removal of 3 very large, and very diseased, trees along the Esmeralda staircase. The greatest offense is that her family would be responsible for all liability should one of these monstrous pines fall and cause injury; this is the threat they employ to goad her and her husband into spending thousands of dollars to remove what should be city property. Let me make this clear, Laura has no legal ability to use this land and yet she is responsible for maintaining city space. The cost to remove these trees (in both size and complexity) is crippling and sets a dangerous precedent that the citizen’s should shoulder the burden of maintenance.

    • And this is what can happen next (I speak from experience). You apply for the tree removal permit to remove the city tree. The city post the permit. A local busy body tree necrophile spots the permit and appeals. This forces a pointless tree removal hearing that wastes more time and tax payer money.

    • I was just wondering this weekend how much large tree removal costs. Does anyone have a ballpark figure for SF? There are a number of them slated for removal around us–and some big ones–and I have no idea what a recent quote for that kind of work would be.

      • I just got a quote of $5600 to remove a tall monterey pine from my backyard. Access is poor; quote for easier access would probably be somewhat less. Also could be higher if there’s a lot of existing landscaping that needs to be protected.

    • If they start a crowdfund campaign, I’ll contribute. The staircases through Bernal are an element of SF living that I really enjoy.

      I agree, it should be a city responsibility, but if attempts to organize homeowners and pushback fail, then please allow me to buy a 2015 Bernalwood Park Pass.

  7. But Laura, you’re the rich! You own property so you should cheerfully chip to help out poor, poverty-stricken city government do its job.

  8. This new shift in tree care is crazy, wrong and will make the City suck more. How can I help?

    Signed,
    I Heart SF Trees!

  9. Laura, you should request a Public Hearing on the matter. This has to be appeal-able in some way. You just have to figure out to whom. DPW should give you instructions on how to do this. I also know that there are tree removal hearings at City Hall. If it’s not a Tree Removal Hearing, it might be the Board of Appeals. (Having just checked the DPW’s calendar, there is a tree removal hearing tonight. You might want to attend to see if this is the process for an appeal) This isn’t the typical street-tree-in-front-of-the-house situation. These areas are really open spaces / city parks and the city should take care of them. I wonder if other open spaces/parks that abut private properties are receiving notices? ie; juri commons, duboce park, etc……Are the folks on the south side of Elsie Street responsible for the trees on Bernal Hill?
    Something is not right here.

    Tree Removal Hearing 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm @ City Hall, Room 416

  10. Unbelievable and infuriating. How is it the city government has no accountability to the people who pay their salaries and fund their programs? I love SF and its trees, but this is ridiculous. Let us know if there is some way we can help!

  11. Hi Laura: They have not fulfilled their duties in inspecting the trees for disease and need for pruning. The Monterey Pine is obviously diseased and dying (as are most Monterey Pines) and they have to remove it. They like to forget this inconvenient part of their responsibilities. How do these trees ‘front’ your home when they are on the DPW right of way? My understanding is that all stairs and the open space around them belong to DPW. Good luck.

  12. I feel as if what SF does to property owners is usury to a criminal level. This should go to court, where it will lose. The problem is, who has the money to deal with taking the city to court? Taking care of the sidewalks, taking care of street trees, (for some) subsidizing tenants’ life leases, now taking care of trees on public streets? All while paying expensive property tax, or at least expensive for those who bought in the last nearly 20 years or so. It’s all so exploitive. Shameful stuff.

    • Agreed. I completely agree that the way the city is shifting responsibility is bullshit, and I appreciate you sharing that information with us (I’m a renter so I wouldn’t have known this otherwise). And there are many other ways the city government fails its residents, sadly. But tech shuttles have nothing to do with this – the city does not subsidize them and in fact collects a small fee from the tech companies for the right to run the shuttles. (My understanding is that the city would like to collect a larger fee, and some of the tech companies might not even object to that, but there’s some city rule that the city can’t charge any more than the cost of running the program.)

      Best of luck getting this sorted out, and I really hope the city changes this policy.

    • Ben,
      I’m Laura’s husband; we composed the letter together. The sentence about the Google buses was mine, not hers. Upon looking into it I realize that you’re correct; SF does not directly subsidize the buses. I apologize for the inaccuracy.

  13. A couple of years ago, I worked with my neighbors on Mirabel to replace sidewalk cement with “sidewalk gardens”, a project of Friends of the Urban Forest and DPW to take the load off the sewers (more rain water going directly into Mother Earth). At that time FUF was actively working to get the City to take on MORE responsibility for street trees, not less. They pointed out that not only was the law unfair, but it was very bad for the Urban Forest since many residents could not afford to maintain the health of the trees, pay for arborists to prune them carefully, etc. At that time, the City was planning to expand the number of streets that would be changing from City-,maintained to “owner-maintained” trees. Those beautiful trees along Folsom were among those slated to become owner-maintained; FUF was working with the public to organize against this.

    I don’t know what came of that effort. I don’t see it mentioned on the FUF website now. But, Laura, if you haven’t talked to them, I think it would be worth doing to learn the history and current status of their efforts around this issue. And keep us neighbors posted if you need numbers to make your case at City Hall. Thanks for take the time to fight back.

  14. http://www.folsomstreettrees.org/

    Folsom Street neighbors have been trying to get some city attention to this — see our letter and join us. Despite the fact that many long-time homeowners have no ability to pay for this type of maintenance, Dave Campos shows absolutely no interest. They city is also is dividing these up so that so one knows that this is happening elsewhere, and there is a divided reaction to it when it finally reaches you (“first they came for the trees down the road…”) Friends of the Urban Forest and Scott Weiner are trying to get support for a ballot measure that would assess a fee on property owners to pay for tree maintenance and to increase the number of trees (so it would cost far more than just existing maintenance), but that couldn’t happen for another year. But it’s better than nothing. The notification process does not seem to follow any of the rules the City claims it follows, nor is ownership of the trees clear.

  15. You would think with the additional property tax windfall this city must have that the streets would be paved in gold.
    Instead crime is up and the homeless camps are getting larger.

  16. 1. Why not just refuse the order? I know that’s easier to suggest than do, but it seems like the harder DPW comes down on you, the more “newsworthy” your story will become. What have they threatened as penalties? I’m not familiar with this site, but it doesn’t sound like it would stand up to legal scrutiny. I’d be very tempted to play a game of chicken with them and see how they respond when put under a spotlight.

    2. With Supervisor Weiner aware of the homeowner/DPW maintenance issue, you have a rare opportunity: He is much more responsive than our “representatives,” even if you aren’t a resident of his district. Contact his office and see if they have advice. Also contact the Mayor’s office. In San Francisco, the squeaky wheel gets all the grease and then some. Here’s your chance to take advantage of that fact. Squeak like hell.

    3. FWIW: You don’t need a permit to remove Pines or Eucalyptus of any size, or any other species that is smaller than 9″ DBH (diameter at breast height).

    Good luck!

    • There are really 4 trees in question here, all of which are over 30′ tall and likely more than 20″ in circumference; these are MASSIVE pine trees that would require specialty arborists and likely cost $10-20K to remove. In jest, I thought they’d post “Happy Festivus, Love Ed Lee” cards alongside the removal notifications.

      Today’s Chronical ran a story regarding this issue and I’m sure it will be forwarded to Scott Weiner. I’ll try to get some better photos that show the sheer size of these trees and their location to the street/staircase.

      • Erin: I know first hand the challenges of removing large trees in an uban setting, and sympathize with the unacceptable situation our neighbor has been put in.

        You hit the nail right on the head regarding the root cause of this issue: employing people costs money. By transferring responsibility to property owners, the City is able to lay off gardeners and arborists to use that money elsewhere. It isn’t right.

        There are a lot of (IMHO) less deserving budgetary wheels that happen to be squeakier and receive an unwarranted amount of grease…

        I personally would move Parks and Rec and the street-tree portions of DPW much further up the food chain. I’ve never understood how such a “tree-hugging” city can be satisfied with so few trees to hug…

        🙂

    • For what it’s worth, you can contact Scott Weiner, the mayor, or anyone else who works for the City by simply emailing them using this email format… first name.last name@sfgov.org

      I was able to directly in touch with the Assessor Recorder this way when I had issues with my property taxes and the Treasurer’s Office. The problem was fixed in a fraction of the time…you just have to jump over the little people and go right to the boss!

  17. Earlier in the year I called regarding a sidewalk tree in front of the Mission St business I manage. The 311 call confirmed the city owned the tree and a maintenance request would be submitted and the rats removed from the untrimmed palm. 6 months later, after several more calls and emails, the request was shown as resolved, but the tree had not been trimmed. Further research showed the resolution was to transfer the tree to the building owner. Whenever city services are requested, passing the buck is the go to solution.

  18. CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT against the city? What SF is doing is clearly wrong. The trees are city property and planted on city property. Property owners need to get together and file suit to overturn this travesty. Why don’t you folks hold a community meeting and organize?

  19. Laura, another “squeaky wheel” option is to file a complaint with the SF Civil Grand Jury to look into this issue. If accepted, they have the authority to investigate the entire DPW policy, and it’s execution, They could then file a press-ready report with recommendations that must be publicly responded to by the department. The complaint form is at http://civilgrandjury.sfgov.org/submitcomplaint.html
    This route will not deal with your specific appeal, but could help the Board of Supes craft a fairer policy moving forward.

  20. I have also been a victim of this new Tree Transfer program which should really be called “supplemental tax” program. How can the City have another agency become the de facto second Assessor’ office? I received a citation from a faceless bureaucrat in the Department of Urban Forestry who was not interested in hearing anything I had to say outside of their single minded and narrowly focused attempt to transfer financial burden to me. The tree in question is nearest to my home so I have to take full responsibility although it is in the middle of the right away and enjoyed by everyone in the neighborhood. I have filed a Civil Grand Jury complaint as this a undemocratic and arbitrary (double) taxation.

    • Do you like your supervisor? Do you like the Mayor? They are ultimately responsible. Parks Dept. budget pressure = transfer costs to homeowners in the budget = budget goes to Supes and Mayor for approval.

      They are responsible = WE are responsible because we elected them and tacitly approve what they are doing. The electorate has a love/hate relationship with homeowners. Sigh…

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