I-Team

uFixIt: Public Works accuses BofA of tree topping

Friday, September 30, 2011
, Chief Investigative Reporter
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Our uFixIt segments usually involve someone trying to get the I-Team to step in and get the government to step up and get something done on city streets, but this time it's the city of San Francisco that needs our help.

This is a uFixIt with a twist. City officials are asking the I-Team to stick up for them against one big corporation. The Department of Public Works says someone is slashing off the tops of trees in front of bank signs and they want Bank of America to take responsibility.

After seeing a number of trees cut in a damaging way, the city started to wonder who was behind it. Now, the San Francisco Department of Public Works is pointing the finger at Bank of America.

"What we're seeing is a pattern of these trees being hacked or pruned just to make room for signs for the bank," said Public Works director Mohammed Nuru.

The signs are now clearly more visible on Clement, Geary, Balboa, Taraval, and Irving Street. And neighbors aren't happy about it.

"If this is the type of childish behavior this corporation is going to be doing, I think this is the way the tree grows, why don't they move the bank?" said neighbor Harry Pariser.

For the past year, Nuru has been writing strong letters to bank officials and he fined the corporation for shearing off trees at two locations, but the bank ignored the letters and the fines.

"We feel they are not listening to the city's cries to follow city ordinances and that has led us to here," said Nuru.

Cutting off more than a quarter of the branches is called "tree topping" and it's illegal in San Francisco. Topped trees often die or suffer damage that results in weakened limbs and a public safety hazard. It's also considered an eyesore.

"It's very, very frustrating when you look to banks or huge corporations to lead by example," said Nuru.

So the I-Team called Bank of America and now they're talking, but it is not what the city wants to hear. Bank officials told us by phone and email that they'll take the heat for one tree pruned by their property management group.

But what happened to all the rest is a mystery. They say it could have been a landlord since the bank does not own the buildings. And on Clement Street, they assume the Department of Public Works chopped off those branches themselves to get rid of damaged limbs after a storm. That did not sit well with the Department of Public Works chief arborist Carla Short.

"Our message to Bank of America is you need to stop damaging your trees," said Short.

She says one tree will likely die and for others it's just a matter of time. With cuts to arborists and the budget at the Department of Public Works, Short doesn't want resources funneled away from neighborhoods in need.

"Frankly, I think this is a big corporation that's not being a good corporate citizen and I would like to see them pay their fine and maybe they could contribute to some tree planting to try and mitigate the impacts of this devastation that they've caused," said Short.

At Friends of the Urban Forest, a non-profit tree planting organization in San Francisco, the important thing now is that it doesn't happen again.

"I know that Bank of America has gotten the message," said Friends of the Urban Forest director Dan Flanagan.

Flanagan says the group works with the city to plant 2,000 trees a year, but we lose 4,000 a year. So each tree counts.

"Urban settings are really tough settings, so if you have a tree that's actually been able to survive for 30 years, that's a really important thing for our city and to see it lost in a couple of minutes is a tragedy," said Flanagan.

Bank of America says they'll now pay the $1,600 fine for the dying Irving Street tree, but they disagree that it was over-pruned and they are appealing the fines for the trees on Clement Street. The city tells us they haven't ruled out legal action against the bank. We'll keep watch on this and let you know what happens.

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Tags:
bank of america, i-team, dan noyes
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