Look for the Silver Lining Interview with San Francisco’s Urban Forester

Chris Buck works for San Francisco Public Works, which regulates the planting, care and removal for sidewalk and median trees in the city.  After serving as an inspector for the last eight years, he is now the Urban Forester. Chris often volunteers for the Western Chapter ISA and California Arborist Association and is a judge of the ISA Certified Tree Worker exam. Chris is an ISA Certified Arborist, Municipal Specialist, a WCISA Certified Tree Worker and an ASCA Registered Consulting Arborist.


Explain the structure of your department and how it fits in with other urban forest related departments in San Francisco.

Our group is located within the Bureau of Urban Forestry, part of the larger agency of San Francisco Public Works (SFDPW). We have jurisdiction over all of the trees and plants within the public right-of-way, along with jurisdiction over Significant trees on private property (trees within 10 feet of the public right of way that meet certain size requirements) and landmark trees (trees nominated for landmark status based on their size, age or other unique characteristics).

Historically SFDPW has maintained approximately one third of the street trees in the public right-of-way, largely along the main thoroughfares, and the adjacent property owners have been responsible for the remaining two thirds of street trees. These two thirds of street trees are still within our jurisdiction – we issue the planting and removal permits – but property owners are responsible for all tree maintenance and sidewalk repairs.

Where do park trees fit into this?

The San Francisco Recreation & Park Department manages all of the trees within the parks, so in San Francisco, we are two completely separate agencies. There are a number of other smaller agencies that also maintain trees on their own property, including the Port of San Francisco, SF Municipal Transit Agency, and the SF Public Utilities Commission.  San Francisco also has community-based nonprofit called Friends of the Urban Forest that has been planting, maintaining and advocating for urban forestry causes since 1981.

To help with the coordination of all of these urban forestry efforts, we have an Urban Forestry Council that is managed by SF Environment, another City agency. The council advises city departments, including the mayor and the Board of Supervisors. Despite the small area of San Francisco (about 49 square miles), the question of tree responsibility is very complex.

Part of your responsibility includes attending the sometimes controversial “Tree Court” hearings. Have you noticed any particular trends in the reasons people want to remove trees or the amount of removal applications you receive?

We actually have two types of “tree courts.” We have monthly Tree Hearings at City Hall where tree removal permit applications are reviewed. Members of the public interested in preserving or removing specific trees are able to attend and speak. Certain cases can attract a number of people, both for and against tree removals.

Many property owners assume we will never approve a tree for removal, which isn’t such a bad assumption to have created in the minds of the public. The truth is that we do approve plenty of street trees for removal, based on the health and structural stability of the individual tree that we are evaluating. We generally deny the removal of a street tree or significant tree if it is healthy and sustainable.

In terms of trends, when the economy is strong, we see an increase in the amount of tree removal applications due to construction and development. It is notoriously difficult to find parking in San Francisco and property owners often seek permission from the Planning Department to renovate their property to install a garage and driveway. There are plenty of conflicts in those situations because existing, established street trees are often located in the proposed path of the garage and driveway. We work hard to retain as many street trees during construction as possible.

The most common reasons for removal stated on applications by property owners is sidewalk damage, damage to their sewer line, that the tree is “overgrown” or that the tree is “messy.” Between those reasons and construction impacts, we’re very busy.

1 Ellyn Shea

Are decisions made during the hearing?

No, the hearing decision is issued a few weeks later and then appealable for 15 days, so our tree court is still not the final word. All permits in San Francisco can be appealed to the Board of Appeals, both for the construction of a new high-rise development, or for a single dead tree.

How does owner responsibility for tree maintenance and sidewalk repair for two thirds of the trees affect the outcomes for those particular trees?

Generally, what I have observed is that for many property owners and managers, if the trees cost money to maintain, they seek the removal of the tree(s). We work hard to educate property owners and the public that street trees are part of the infrastructure and that you can replace the sidewalk in-kind, but you can’t do that with mature and established trees. I remind my staff all the time that there are plenty of property owners and managers spending money to maintain their trees properly, we just don’t hear about it – they don’t call us up to say how much they love their trees and that they just dropped serious coin doing so. People only contact us when there are problems; we all need to remember that.

You mentioned a second type of “tree court” – what is it?

We also have monthly Administrative Hearings at City Hall, where property owners who have received fines can appeal their cases. Owners can be cited for excessive pruning (topping, or removing more foliage than would be recommended by ANSI A300 pruning standards or the judgment of a qualified arborist), illegal removals without a permit, or for failure to protect trees during construction.

We issue fines of $1,847.00 per tree if trees are excessively pruned, removed without a permit, or damaged during construction. That is the bare minimum fine. Our Urban Forestry Ordinance directs us to issue this minimum fine amount or the appraised value of the tree removed or damaged, whichever is the greater amount of the two. At these hearings we emphasize that when a topped tree appears to be sprouting back vigorously, this is a stress response and the tree has in fact been damaged. If the contractor was properly licensed and a qualified arborist, we direct the property owners to address the issue with their contractor.

How has City policy towards street trees changed in your time with the City? What changes do you anticipate in the near future?

We are in the midst of a major policy change at the moment and it is very controversial but we’re focusing on a silver lining. San Francisco has never made a large commitment to urban forestry endeavors. You just need to watch car chase scenes in movies filmed here in the 1960s to see how few street trees were here at the time (my favorite is ‘Bullit’ with Steve McQueen).

For the one third of street trees that we are responsible for maintaining, we handle the pruning, removals when necessary, and repairing the sidewalk when it is damaged by tree roots. In 2012, due to successive years of budget cuts, we had to initiate the relinquishment of maintenance responsibility of trees previously maintained by Public Works, to the adjacent property owners. We did so with great reluctance, but felt that the growing number of years between pruning cycles was not sustainable and created too large a liability and public safety concern to ignore. To date, we have relinquished (or transferred) the maintenance responsibility of 9,000+ street trees to property owners. We are concerned that some property owners may hire an unqualified individual to prune and maintain these public assets, or simply fail to maintain the tree(s) at all.

Back to the silver lining. Last year San Francisco adopted an updated Urban Forest Plan, and accomplishment in itself, and one of the primary recommendations is that the City move to the municipal management of all street trees. Not only would we take back the trees that have been relinquished, but we could take on the maintenance of all the street trees across the City.

How will you fund this?

We’re looking for funding.  A number of stakeholders throughout the City are working towards a solution to find a large enough, dedicated funding source for SFDPW to maintain all of the street trees. There is even the possibility that a ballot initiative will appear on the ballot with the upcoming general election. Some of the options might be a parcel tax on property owners, or the creation of Green Benefits Districts across the City.

We are optimistic; street trees play too critical a role towards creating a livable urban environment to continue to ignore the role they play as infrastructure. Unlike all other infrastructure, trees actually appreciate over time. In San Francisco, we really think this is the Year of the Tree.

What other positive changes have you seen since you started with SFDPW?

It still feels like yesterday, but about 10 years ago San Francisco created the sidewalk landscaping permit. It allows property owners to remove concrete and de-pave the sidewalk in front of their property, as long as a minimum pedestrian through zone of at least 6’ is maintained.

It is a very inexpensive permit – before this process was created, the only other way to get permission to do this was through an expensive encroachment permit, which really discouraged the average homeowner from opening up the sidewalk.

It is a great tool to address ongoing sidewalk damage caused by tree roots, and prevents rain water from entering our combined sewer system, which overflows into the Pacific Ocean and Bay multiple times each winter. This permit has really been embraced across the City by property owners and groups like Friends of the Urban Forest, who can now offer property owners who are on the fence about tree planting, to take the baby step of installing landscaping. These sidewalk gardens still require a commitment from the property owner to maintain but they do not damage the sidewalk, damage sewer lines, clog gutters or block views.

5 TulipTree Chris Buck

You were an English major in college. How did you get into arboriculture?

In my final semester I had the choice to take a Hemingway/Fitzgerald class or take a class devoted to ‘Walden’ by Henry David Thoreau. I had no career ideas and I knew I’d be short on money for some time to come. I chose Thoreau. We read ‘Walden’ line by line. Half of our grade was to keep a nature-inspired journal and I decided to buy a basic tree ID book and learn the names of the trees around me. I got really hooked.

In retrospect, my degree in English has helped me quite a bit. Before that time I thought you had to be a lumberjack or park ranger if you wanted to work with trees – I had no idea there even was such a thing as Arboriculture, and yet most of the trees we see in our daily lives are all being managed by this growing industry.

Tell us about your favorite tree and why.

Liriodendron tulipifera is my favorite tree because I think it has the most interesting leaf shape and they can vary quite a bit within the same tree. It was love at first sight, even before I learned about its flower and its stature as the tallest of the deciduous trees in the Eastern U.S. Then I heard the quote that Walt Whitman referred to it as the Apollo of the woods, and I couldn’t agree more.


Ellyn Shea is an arborist and consultant in San Francisco.

Top image: San Francisco’s Geary Street in the 1970s (courtesy of the SF Public Library) / Image of sidewalk garden courtesy of Ellyn Shea / Image of tulip tree courtesy of Chris Buck.

One comment

  1. What a great interview! Thanks Ellyn and Chris!

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