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Hefty Fee Could Uproot Sidewalk Garden Plans

SF's latest environmental push requires a big commitment from residents, who can be fined if they don't keep gardens up

Sidewalk gardens are San Francisco's latest attempt to spruce up the city's pedestrian spaces, but a $215 permit fee required to construct the mini streetside landscapes may keep many from getting their hands dirty.

The city recently kicked off a series of free monthly workshops on how to create sidewalk gardens, in order to generate public interest. The project is funded by an $80,000 grant from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and the Department of Public Works hopes at least 100 new gardens will result from the effort.

The money will help pay for the monthly workshops hosted by the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society and a large demonstration garden to be built near the County Fair Building in Golden Gate Park.

“We’re trying to make it easy for people to do this and trying to show them it shouldn’t be intimidating,” said Carla Short, an urban forester with the Department of Public Works. “There are a lot of guidelines by necessity, but we’re hoping to show people that it’s not too scary. It’s not too hard.”

According to the city, the diminutive gardens will beautify neighborhoods, provide habitat for wildlife and enable rainwater to soak into the soil rather than flow into the city’s sewer system, which during heavy storms overflows and pollutes the bay.

The joint recipients of the grant — the San Francisco Department of Public Works, the Botanical Garden Society and the Parks Trust — are encouraging residents to take out several square feet of sidewalk in front of their homes and replace it with native plants. The workshops walk participants through the steps of designing, permitting and building the gardens.

Becoming a sidewalk garden owner is no small commitment. Owners can be fined by the city if they neglect the landscaping or allow trash to accumulate in their gardens. They must also fork over a $215 permit fee and pay for all other supplies.

Despite the recent influx of cash to promote sidewalk gardens, they are not new to San Francisco. Over the last several years more than 750 permits have been issued for the gardens.

“We’ve had this permit on the books for a couple of years,” said Short, “but it’s a great opportunity for property owners and the city to get more permeability in the city, so we wanted to promote it and make it more accessible to people”

Permeability is a hot topic in San Francisco. The Better Streets Plan, which contains new guidelines for developing pedestrian areas, was approved by the Board of Supervisors last year went into effect on Jan. 16. It is full of strategies for improving the city’s ability to absorb rainwater rather than letting it flow into sewers.

Improving permeability is the main benefit of sidewalk gardens, according to Jane Martin, a commissioner for the San Francisco Commission on the Environment and a landscape architect who hit upon the idea for sidewalk gardens in 2003.

“The idea is to take a deep, dark ugly issue that we don’t want to deal with,” Martin said in reference to the city’s lack of permeability, “and make it something positive and give people a way they can access it on an individual personal basis that improves their life immediately.”

Inspired to plant a garden in front of her San Francisco house, Martin quickly found that obtaining a permit for the project was arduous and expensive. She set to work streamlining the process and today runs the nonprofit PlantSF to promote sidewalk landscaping.

But how effective the gardens are at reducing the volume of rainwater entering the sewer system during big storms remains unknown.

“We are currently working on quantifying the benefits of impervious areas throughout the city, but this has not yet been completed,” Leslie Webster from the Urban Watershed Management Program wrote in an e-mail.

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