Sidewalk Tree Pruning? Beware, Your Pocketbook May Get Pruned

Ken Hoegger
Ken Hoegger surveys his sidewalk tree

Do you prune your sidewalk trees? Beware, you may be issued a fine if the Urban Forestry Inspector determines your pruning caused tree damage.

I planted my Metrosideros robusta, AKA New Zealand Christmas Tree, in 1977, and prune the trees every December.

Fifteen years ago, DPW required me to replace my sidewalk, damaged by aggressive roots from my trees. Since then, I have maintained the tree's height under 25 feet to minimize the tree roots from cracking my downward sloping lot's retaining walls, which are within seven feet of the base of the tree trunks. My neighbors are also pleased to be able to retain their views over my tree canopy.

DPW and the Urban Forestry Department's fining policy appears to be in opposition to their stated goals of encouraging the public to plant sidewalk trees.”

On March 21st, I received a letter from an Urban Forestry Inspector fining me $1847, claiming my pruning damaged the tree. I informed the inspector that I had been pruning the trees in a similar manner for the last twenty- four years, ever since I replaced my sidewalk. The inspector stated that fines could not be revoked and my only recourse was to appeal before a hearing committee. I am in the process of preparing for my appeal and checked on -line and discovered that I was one of many who were fined throughout the City, and that my chances of a successful appeal were negligible despite an Urban Forestry advisor, Laurence Costello, stating that it was a mistake for DPW to recommend the Metrosideros robusta as a sidewalk tree due to its invasive root growth. I have also obtained a letter from a well-known arborist and advisor to DPW, Ted Kipping, stating that my pruning did not damage the tree and only minor corrective  branch pruning is recommended.

DPW and the Urban Forestry Department's fining policy appears to be in opposition to their stated goals of encouraging the public to plant sidewalk trees. I do not argue against fines, but recommend the following: 1. Owners who damage their trees should first be required to attend tree pruning or tree care classes, and then, if proper care practices are not followed, community service or monetary fines should be considered.  2.  A public education program promoting proper tree care should be launched. This could be done inexpensively through water department mailings. 3.  Pruning standards should not be applied rigidly without consideration of the tree species, and the unique planting environment. 4.  All existing fines should be placed in abeyance until a public education program is launched. Unless this draconian fining policy is amended, the public will be discouraged from planting sidewalk trees, as this policy appears to be nothing more than a revenue generator for DPW.

The Urban Forestry Department has contributed enormously to the greening of our City, but sometimes institutions CAN BE MORE EFFECTIVE WITH PUBLIC INPUT. If you have been or fear you may be subjected to a fine, I look forward to hearing of your experience. Together, we may be able to help DPW and the Urban Forestry Department develop a more citizen-friendly policy that encourages the development of our urban forest.

Ken Hoegger is a native San Franciscan living on Mt Davidson. He has been involved in numerous tree planting projects and community involvements in the West of Twin Peaks area over a 45 year period.

May 2016