City Failed to Act on Hazardous Tree

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The tree that fell onto Golden Gate Avenue on Jan. 16 was known to be hazardous. The city still didn’t approve its removal before it fell. GABRIEL GRESCHLER/FOGHORN

Documents and Emails Reveal San Francisco Public Works Did Not Approve Tree Removal Application Before It Fell

Click here to experience a visualization of the other hazardous trees on Golden Gate Avenue.

On the morning of Jan. 17, University of San Francisco students, faculty and staff were surprised to find one of the towering, 80-foot Leyland Cypress trees along Golden Gate Avenue fallen over across the road. The tree had come down the night before, near the Harney Science Center, during heavy rain and wind. Nobody was hurt and no cars were damaged.

Documents and emails obtained by the Foghorn reveal that San Francisco Public Works (SFPW), the office that oversees the city’s infrastructure, did not approve a request by the University to remove the tree two weeks before it fell.

The University had been aware of the potential risk the tree posed since 2017, according to USF Facilities Director of Operations Craig Petersen. Bartlett Tree Experts, a San Francisco-based company the University contracts for heavy-duty landscaping jobs, initially took note of the tree’s poor root structure that year.

In fall 2018, Bartlett staff conducted another assessment of the University’s trees, where they again noted the tree’s poor condition. This led USF Facilities to submit a request to have it removed.

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According to the SFPW Code, any tree that is within 10 feet of city property, in this case the street, must be approved first by the city before removal.

On Nov. 19, 2018, USF Landscape Superintendent Jorge Rosales submitted an application for removal of the tree, identified as #1564. The application stated that the tree was “leaning toward [the street],” and that its “root plate [was] lifting.”

The application had an attached assessment from Bartlett staff, which recommended that the tree be “considered for immediate removal,” and that simple pruning “will not… reduce the likelihood of failure.” This assessment was conducted by Bartlett Arborist Representative David Hill, who, according to his biography, has 25 years of experience caring for trees.

After the application was submitted, SFPW Urban Forestry Inspector Susan Nawbary inspected the tree on Dec. 20, 2018.

The tree that fell onto Golden Gate Avenue on Jan. 16 was recommended for removal by an experienced arborist, but the city still didn’t approve its removal before it fell. VISUALIZATION BY
GABRIEL GRESCHLER/FOGHORN, SATELLITE IMAGE/GOOGLE EARTH

On Jan. 4, 2019, Nawbary notified the University that the city had not approved the tree to be removed. She requested further evidence from the University to prove the tree was hazardous.

According to SFPW, Nawbary found the tree’s “wood to be in good condition, the canopy to be in very good condition, and noted there was a deficiency that needed to be addressed, which could be done by removing one hollow limb that was hanging over the road.”

About two weeks later, 12 hours before the tree fell, Hill made another assessment of the tree, which included more measurements of the roots. He again found the tree was failing and posed a hazard. The University sent in this additional evidence to SFPW that day. The tree fell later that night.

Hill estimates that the tree weighed between 60,000 and 100,000 pounds, needles and all. He said that it could have “crushed a car and killed a human” if there had been anything underneath.

“Thank God nobody got hurt and [there] was no property damage…” Rosales said in an email to Nawbary the morning after the tree fell.

Nawbary did not comment for this story. Per SFPW policy, other Department representatives provided a statement to the Foghorn. “It is important to understand that all trees pose some level of risk and trees can fail unpredictably, even when no apparent defect is found,” the statement said. “Our urban forestry inspectors follow the industry’s best practices in evaluating trees as they make informed and reasoned assessments of their condition. However, no arborist or individual can predict with certainty when any tree may fail.”

Trees have fallen before on Golden Gate Avenue. Above is a photo of then-junior Javier Lopez’s car, which was totaled by a tree on Jan. 8, 2017. COURTESY OF JAVIER LOPEZ

When Nawbary notified the University she had not approved the now-fallen tree for removal, she did approve two other trees that the original application listed. One is located on the same block where the fallen tree was. The other is across the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Tamalpais Terrace, near the Hayes-Healy underground garage.

The two trees that did get approved are subject to a 30-day public comment period before they are removed on Feb. 3. Anyone objecting to their removal must write to the Director of Public Works, Mohammed Nuru. According to SFPW, their department has a “desire to grow San Francisco’s urban forest and not reduce it, whenever possible.”

After tree #1564 fell, Petersen asked permission from the city to waive the 30-day period.

“I am formally requesting the City waive the remaining time for public commentary on the two trees the city approved for removal,” Petersen wrote in an email to Nawbary. “Given the current and forecast weather I don’t believe it is safe or prudent to wait any longer.”

After not receiving a response from Nawbary for five days, Petersen wrote a follow up email. “We are anxious to get these two trees removed ASAP,” Petersen wrote.

The same day, Nawbary replied, “I ran this one by my supervisor, and given the conditions of the remaining trees remained unchanged after the storm, we will wait until the posting period is over.”

Reflecting on the situation, Petersen said, “I’m not going to say these folks aren’t doing their job. But even if all that’s done, we’ve got this bureaucracy that you gotta work your way through.”

Petersen added, “My biggest concern right now is getting those other [two] trees removed as quickly as possible since we’re all in agreement that they’re a known risk. Let’s remove that risk as soon as we can.”

The city charges $383 to remove between one and three hazardous trees.

Falling trees on Golden Gate Avenue have caused damage to property before. One tree, which fell on Jan. 8, 2017, damaged three parked cars. Javier Lopez, a junior at the time, was one of the students whose car was totaled.

“It kind of sucked having the tree [w]reck my car since it was my first car that I had personally paid for, and knowing that I wouldn’t be able to get another from my own personal expenses sucked,” Lopez said in an email. “Especially the amount of time it took me to save up for the down payment and monthly payments; I felt [like] it was all thrown down the drain.”

Lopez was not able to get a new car because he had leased the original vehicle. His insurance had to pay back the dealership.

Know anything about the trees on USF’s campus? Email ggreschler@sffoghorn.com.

This article contains updated information regarding SFPW press inquiry policy.

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