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A Green Idea That Sounded Good Until the Trees Went to Work

Elizabeth Kantor on Monday, Aug. 23, 2010 outside her home on Potrero Hill, in the shadow of the destructive tree she wants removed
Elizabeth Kantor on Monday, Aug. 23, 2010 outside her home on Potrero Hill, in the shadow of the destructive tree she wants removed
Homeowners have to fight for city permission to remove destructive tree species

The 1980s had their share of ill-fated ideas — parachute pants, Betamax and New Coke, to name a few — but for San Francisco property owners, the cursed relic of that decade is the Metrosideros excelsus.

More commonly known as the New Zealand Christmas tree, it is distinctive for its crimson flowers, its ability to thrive almost anywhere and roots that can grow to nine inches in diameter — destroying sewer lines and sidewalks.

That destruction of infrastructure is happening across the city as the trees planted during the 1980s have matured. A 2003 survey by the University of California, Davis, counted 4,873 of the species in San Francisco.

Despite widespread recognition that choosing the trees was a mistake — in fact, the species is no longer planted except in certain areas — the city is fighting those who must deal with its ruinous effects. Property owners who ask to replace or remove the trees face a lengthy and expensive battle.

Consider the ordeal of Elizabeth Kantor, a physician who treats elderly patients in the city’s impoverished Tenderloin neighborhood. She owns a home at 835 Wisconsin St. on Potrero Hill, and in 1984 she was excited to have a fledgling New Zealand Christmas tree planted in front of her house.

But this past February the Department of Public Works cited Kantor because the tree’s roots had buckled the sidewalk. Under city ordinances, property owners are responsible for adjacent sidewalks, and the department estimated that 25 concrete squares plus curbing needed replacing — at a cost of about $2,500.

Kantor said the roots had also invaded sewer lines, causing blockages that had required 17 plumber visits since 2000, and PG&E has had to prune the tree’s top repeatedly to keep it from damaging power lines.

Enough was enough. Kantor paid $300 and applied with the Department of Urban Forestry, a unit of the Department of Public Works, to replace the tree with a more benign species.

That request was rejected.

Kantor asked for a hearing and on April 26 went to “tree trial” where Carla Short, from the Department of Urban Forestry, mounted a vigorous defense of the tree, which included a PowerPoint presentation on the environmental benefits of mature foliage.

Once again, the bid to replace the tree was denied.

Undeterred, Kantor paid another $300 to take her case to the city’s Board of Appeals, and on July 21 she faced a contentious, 10-person, hourlong public interrogation.

Short revived her role as city tree defender (sans PowerPoint) and repeated her overall praise of trees, but she also confirmed what is well known about Metrosideros excelsus. “They do cause infrastructure damage,” she testified.

Knowing that, why fight for such a malevolent tree?

“We would be at a 26-year deficit if this tree were removed and another smaller tree planted in its place,” Short said.

San Francisco has few indigenous species of trees — the hills were mostly grass and brush when settlers first arrived — so each of the estimated 108,000 trees that line the city’s streets, and thousands more in parks, are precious.

Twenty-six years might not seem old, but tree planting here did not begin in earnest until the 1980s, according to Heather Ellison of Friends of the Urban Forest, a nonprofit group responsible for the bulk of the city’s tree plantings. “Everyone was just figuring it out,” Ellison said of the group’s beginnings, noting that there were experiments to see which trees could survive the city’s unique climate.

Hence the selection of the hardy New Zealand Christmas tree. But Laurence R. Costello, an urban forestry adviser to the County of San Francisco, said the tree’s aggressive nature was now apparent. “In retrospect it was a mistake,” Costello said, “and we should acknowledge that.”

But it is difficult for some to let go. Despite 30 years of planting various kinds of trees — about 1,200 trees will be added this year — San Francisco continues to have one of the lowest levels of “canopy cover” of any major American city, Short said, which explains her zeal to save each tree.

In the end, because of the destruction, the board overruled the Department of Urban Forestry and voted to allow Kantor to replace her tree. But she is incredulous at what she sees as a questionable use of city resources during tough economic times, and her six-month journey through the city’s green bureaucratic jungle has left her bruised.

“I will never plant a street tree again,” she said.

There are nearly 5,000 Metrosideros excelsus trees still out there. The penalty for removing one without fighting the city for permission is $1,641. Merry Christmas, indeed.

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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