Ask us: Fallen Trees, what’s the deal?

Where readers ask and we try to answer:


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Given the recent hurricane force winds we had and all the downed trees, I was wondering, could we have more information on the legal aspects of the tree planted in front of a property? I know that we need to apply for a permit to plant one. Do we lose the permit when the tree is removed? How many days do we have to clean a mess? What is the insurance position if the tree totals a car parked underneath, etc.? Can you discuss all ideas that are related?

I found some information here: FAQ Trees and Clean Up (pdf).

Any more information is appreciated.

Anybody care to help out this reader?

7 thoughts on “Ask us: Fallen Trees, what’s the deal?

  1. All I know is that we all should contact Friends of the Urban Forest ( and plant a tree in front of our places! They are awesome, and you can choose from 10+ trees. They will also know more about your questions.


  2. I planted a tree out front of our place a few years ago, and at the time I was made to understand that once a street tree is planted it must be maintained. It must also be replaced if damaged. I can’t find that information again, but in Section C-2 of the it says:

    An “In Lieu” planting fee is $1489 per tree for trees not planted

    pursuant to Section 143 of the Planning Code, for existing trees

    not replanted, or for empty tree basins not planted.

    So… looks like the permit exists from the time it is issued regardless of whether or not the tree survives – you must replant or apply for a removal.

    As for liability, I would guess that it’s like any other obstruction – you’re responsible.


  3. Half my tree fell on aneighbors car, the other half was about to fall on my tenant and a large white panel van. I called DPW in the midst of the storm to say my tree has fallen and it can’t get up.

    They said, “Is anyone trapped beneath the tree?”

    We will be right out.

    DPW siad they woudl take care of it and never showed.

    I then called my trusty arborist, Frank, at City Trees and they came out and said, “This tree needs to come down.” Then cut down my beautiful 50 foot high tree before the remainder of it fell again.

    It cost of me $1000 dollars. I still need to pay for the stump removal and a permit for a new tree. I promised all my neighbors Iwould buy new underwear, which i never did, but I did get new curtains and thank yous were profound.

    I miss my great leaf barrier.


  4. Some street/sidewalk trees are maintained by the property owner and some are maintained by the City, the Bureau of Urban Forestry (BUF). If BUF maintains a tree, they also maintain the sidewalk. If the property owner is responsible for caring for the tree, then the property owner is also responsible for maintaining the sidewalk around the tree.

    If you plant a tree in front of your house in the sidewalk or if you buy a property where you are responsible for caring for a tree and there are trees on site, you are required by San Francisco law to always keep a tree there and to maintain it in good condition. -the only exception that I know of is when a person owns a property on a street or site that BUF maintains, and wants a tree but doesn’t want to wait until BUF can plant it: the property owner may be able to make an agreement with BUF to plant the tree and maintain it for a certain number of years before it reverts to BUF care and control.

    The City won’t come to care for your tree if it is not a City maintained tree. If your tree falls, you need to let BUF know asap, call 311 to do this. (Call 311 for any San Francisco City government questions or needs.) Then hire someone to come and clean it up right away. As far as I know, the person responsible for maintaining the tree is on the hook for insurance because they are responsible for keeping the tree in a good and safe condition.

    The “in lieu” fee that another respondent mentions refers to a fine that can be applied to a homeowner who does not care for their tree properly: illegal pruning or removal. Illegal pruning is pruning that can harm a tree. Since the tree doesn’t belong to you anymore than the sidewalk does, even though you could be responsible for it’s care, the City can fine you for hurting it. Bad pruning is, in essence, defacing public property. See here for a great pruning guide put out by the Department of the Environment:

    That guide also gives some information about a property owner’s legal responsibility. It’s a big PDF and can take a few mintues to load.

    If your tree falls paying the fine does *not* mean you don’t have to replace the tree: you always have to replace the tree. But if you don’t take care of it on your own, you could also be fined.

    Some trees on private poperty are also protected and require permits to remove. See the main BUF page and here for more information:

    You’ll need a permit to remove a tree and also to plant a new one-every time. Removal applications have a fee but planting applications don’t cost anything. BUF needs this paperwork to monitor the urban forest.

    Here’s the website for the City’s Bureau of Urban Forestry

    Here’s the City code which talking about trees:

    Here’s the website which lists street tree which are maintained by the Department of Public Works:

    Here’s the website for Friends of the Urban Forest which can help you plant a tree and find reputable arborists:

    Here’s the website for SFE’s Urban Foresty Program:

    Hope this was helpful.

  5. Dear Mei Ling,

    this is awesome information.

    I also had a chat with my insurance agent. You need to maintain the tree in good health and shape. However, if your tree (and its roots) was fine and falls during a (big) storm on joe’s car, it’s joe’s insurance that should kick in and pay for joe’s car replacement.

    tip: pay by check for the tree maintenance and keep the canceled check in your records. This is your proof of good faith.

    second tip: new squares of concrete are an indication of underground work (ie in many cases careless tree roots damage). Dont park your car there because of the higher risk.

  6. as of today.

    – SFFD cutting the part blocking the way within minutes – free?!?
    – DPW removing the tree – $800 and up. (you can hire your own crew in a timely manner)
    – retroactive permit to remove the tree: $300 – DOCUMENT the fallen tree to explain why to request a retroactive permit. (a photo from the fire department cutting the branches should suffice)
    – you have 6 months from the date of the permit to replant (mandatory) a new tree (count $500 more to clean, dig, replant etc).

    A fallen tree proves to be a VERY expensive accident!!!

    updated links: -> call 311 to report/file the incident -> Trees FAQ. (which replace most of the links from Mei Ling)

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