Illegal tree topping

Ben Carlson from Friends of the Urban Forest informs us of some extreme pruning on Stevenson Street, near The Armory, that basically leaves the trees for dead. The process, known as topping, is illegal in San Francisco, with fines of $1,754 per tree.


[Google Street View]


[San Francisco DPW]

The San Francisco Department of Public Works issued a fine this week of $17,540 to the owner of property in the Mission where trees were “topped” in June. The fine is for $1,754 per tree for 10 topped trees. Topping is an excessive form of pruning that damages and often kills trees, severely diminishes the benefits trees provide, and is illegal in San Francisco (Article 16, Sec. 811 of the Public Works Code).

The DPW and Friends of the Urban Forest were notified by concerned neighbors that the trees, on Stevenson Street adjacent to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, had been “massacred.” One resident observed birds trying to find their nests among the piles of discarded foliage on the ground.

“We’re afraid that incidents of tree topping are likely to rise, because the city is transferring its tree maintenance responsibilities to property owners who don’t know how to care for trees,” said Doug Wildman, program director of Friends of the Urban Forest. “The city’s tree maintenance program is understaffed and underfunded, and consequently our urban forest is in decline. We’re working closely with city officials to identify possible solutions.”

That looks pretty harsh. Why would you want trees that look like that? I happen to really like those trees. Ficus Microcarpa, I believe? They’re what the trees in The Secret Alley are built to resemble. I mean, I’m a plant eater, so obviously I’m not against killing plants, but this just seems lame.

Ben adds:

Anyone who sees a tree being topped, or that has already been topped, should report it to the city, along with the address of the tree, the name of the company or individual responsible for the topping (if known), and a digital photo (if possible). Topping may be reported by calling 311, or by writing to

Property owners can ensure the proper maintenance of their trees by using only ISA-certified arborists. Friends of the Urban Forest maintains a list of such arborists at

For more information about the fine for the Stevenson Street trees, or about the city’s urban forestry program, contact DPW spokesperson Rachel Gordon at 415-554-6045.

64 Responses to “Illegal tree topping”

  1. newtopian says:

    Fucking assholes

  2. ABW says:

    WTF? Why would they do that? Did they think they were sycamores and were trying to pollard them?

  3. scum says:

    Another failure of the Newsome era. “Newsom’s efforts have helped lead to the planting of over 17,500 new trees”

  4. Travis says:

    I remember the trees along Garfield Square Park getting a treatment that looked sorta like this, and they sprung back. I assume the city did it. How is this thing different?

    • asdfasdf says:

      Those are Sycamores which can be pruned down to the bulb end of a branch, They always grow back, its a common pruning method.

      The prune job above will surely kill these trees. For this variety (like most) you always have to prune at the joints to an end point bearing leaves. Pruning 101.

      • Travis says:

        Thanks, tree knower!

        • Ben Bauman says:

          Bullcrap. These trees will survive quite well. In fact it is a recommended trim for this ficus genus. The City of SF does not know what the are talking about. The trim is called pollardiing. Here is a link that condones this action to trees and is opposite view of the City,

          • amyjo9 says:

            @Ben. Can you read your own cite nimrod? It does not list Ficus as one of the trees for which Pollarding is appropriate.

            In fact, the trees it does list all appear to be deciduous and pollarding is recommended to be performed when dormant to not kill the tree. Ficus are evergreen and chopping off all leaves are apt to kill them. The list is pasted below.

            Trees that will thrive after being pollarded:
            • Oak – Quercus spp.
            • Catalpa – Catalpa spp.
            • Maple – Acer spp.
            • Linden – Tilia spp.
            • Mulberry – Morus spp.
            • Redbud – Cercis canadensis
            • London planetree – Platanus x acerifolia
            • Tree of Heaven – Ailanthus altissima
            • Willow – Salix spp.
            • Hornbeam – Carpinus spp.
            • Black locust – Robinia pseudoacacia
            • Horsechestnut – Aesculus hippocastanum

  5. Missionite says:

    oh my god.

  6. speculator says:

    My landlord did this to the trees right outside of my place. I can’t remember the exact details, but his reason had to do with sidewalk maintenance. As the trees were maturing, they were starting to upset the sidewalk and the city was citing him and requiring him to fix the sidewalks. He did the math, and it was less expensive for him to just try and kill the trees and pay the fines, than constant tree service maintenance and sidewalk repair.

    And, he said.. if the tree died -there was some provision where the city would then replace the tree and maintain it at their cost. Or something like that. Anyway, point is -the current legislation disincentivizes unsentimental landlords from maintaining their trees.


    • Snake Plissken says:

      That sucks. When I bought my place way back when, I did “the math” of regular repair before I committed, and decided I was “coming to the nuisance,” as they say in law school.

      So, I’ve had to deal with the white dots, but that’s the price you pay. It’s like having shitty neighbors. You know what you were getting into ahead of time and shouldn’t bitch about it after.

      • Snake, thanks for deciding to go for it. Street trees benefit everyone. When tree roots disturb sidewalks, it’s sometimes possible to expand the basin (the hole cut in the sidewalk) as an alternative to replacing the damaged portion of the sidewalk. A basin expansion is also good for the tree because it captures more water. Call the San Francisco DPW at 311 and ask them to approve a basin expansion. If they approve, hire a contractor to cut the basin bigger (we recommend Sunset Concrete), then add mulch and enjoy the results.

  7. Old Mission Neighbor says:

    The comments on this post are hilarious.

  8. F the FUF says:

    The trees will grow back. City of whiners and finks.

    • asdfasdf says:

      That variety of tree will not grow back. They will all die.

      • Ben Bauman says:

        False. That tree, the ficus, will survive quite well and they are trimmed all over the city. Go to 16th and DeHaro and drive around and you will see this tree well trimmed and thriving. There are over 60 of them in that neighborhood.

        • amyjo9 says:

          Way to spread misinformation Ben.

          Ficus may be trimmed, but not pollarded in this severe manner. They might survive and they might die. As anyone that knows anything about trees would know, for ficus, you should cut back until the first branch of leaves to prune back severely, and it generally should be pruned back in stages. For Ficus and most evergreen trees, no less than 30% of green should be removed per year.

  9. Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable says:

    Yeah, that’s pretty fucked up. A similar thing was done to a tree along my daily commute. I’d been wondering whom I could report it to. Should known 311 was the answer.

  10. ? says:

    Doesn’t the City itself do this to the trees in front of City Hall? Yes, it does. Perhaps these folks learned by example.

  11. property owner says:

    If you don’t want the tree, just cut the thing down and pay the fine. It’s easier in the long run than paying into the FUF racket.

    • JH says:

      If you do that, you will be fined, then required to submit a tree removal application (and pay the fee for that) then you will be required to replant and maintain a the new tree. Basically, if there is a tree basin adjacent to your property, there MUST be a tree in it.

  12. marcos says:

    This is the Greek Orthodox Church on Stevenson near 14th.

    • ertiepie says:

      Curiously, the same type of trees out on the Valencia side of the church didn’t get the same treatment. I live across the street; that alley gets a lot of homeless/drug use/graffiti activity. My guess is they’re just trying to clean it up, but pruning rules are pruning rules. Gotta follow the rules man.

      • f1peeps says:

        we live across the street from the church. graffiti and homeless/drug activity has actually increased since the church did this. now it’s just a completely blighted street. the story also doesn’t mention that the church hired a hauling company to do this. they likely may have cut down the trees entirely had the department of urban forestry not shown up and intervened.

  13. Bruce says:

    This A##hole behavior on the part of owners is directly because of the City’s fascist sidewalk policy. The City cannot seem to align its policy, which is pro-street tree, but anti-cracking. And I mean the tiniest cracks…nothing that creates a trip and fall hazard or any impediment to disabled folks. The city comes and tags cracked sidewalk sections periodically, and it is the property owner’s responsibility to have it repaired… most likely by a contractor the city has already hired. Can you say collusion? It’s crazy, and this is what we get for it. Lollipop trees and massacres.

    • Bob Dole says:

      You know the City also fixes public parks and schools on its own dime right? In case you haven’t noticed the refurbished sidewalks around Dolores Park.

      • Valenchia says:

        @Bob: So what? The point is that the City both requires owners to maintain trees that destroy sidewalks and then repair the destroyed sidewalks. It won’t even allow you to replace a destructive tree with one that is actually appropriate for an urban environment. The policy is completely screwed up.

  14. marcos says:

    I was thinking that people should get cans of white spray paint and go throughout the City marking squares of pavement at random…

  15. Ben Nash says:

    Whoah, does no one here know about this city run program to do exactly this? And do you know that these trees are supposed to be trmmed this extreme. It is NOT illegal to do this to this species. The trees are pruned like this on schedule every few years. The trees will grow back to their previous condition in 2 years. All of these species of trees in SF have been pruned like this for decades. This is normal. I”ve witnessed this in many neighborhoods for a over a decade now.

    BTW the city used to do this, and they have been shifting the responsibility of tree maintenance to the property owners. This transition of maintenance has been posted for years on these exact trees.

    • Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable says:

      You are very, very, very wrong about that.

      • Ben Nash says:

        I do stand corrected. I googled this, and found the sf city website that does take the opinion that topping is bad. I am wrong with that part. However the city has still been topping these very trees for decades. They do grow back to their normal size in 2 years and they do still get topped every 2 years. This is very common for this species all over the city. I am not wrong that this practice is common and done by the city.

        • Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable says:

          Are you sure? What kind of trees do you think these are?

        • Bob Dole says:


        • The topped trees on Stevenson Street are Ficus microcarpa ‘Nitida.’ Understandably, many people don’t realize there’s a difference between topping and pollarding; in both cases a tree’s foliage is cut back severely. Pollarding is a rigorous pruning practice, begun when a tree is young, in which new growth is cut back to the same node or branch each year (typically during winter, when it’s least likely to harm the tree). When done by expert arborists, with species that tolerate it, the tree can remain healthy. In San Francisco, pollarding is usually done only to London plane, elm and sycamore species. Once a tree is pollarded, it must be cut regularly (ideally each year) to remain healthy and structurally sound. Ben Nash, you’re right that the city pollards trees in several locations, but not Ficus trees. The trees in the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park have been pollarded for more than a century; the city maintains them that way. The environmental benefits provided by trees are directly related to their size (especially the extent of their foliage), and pollarding constrains those benefits, so Friends of the Urban Forest does not endorse the practice. What was done to the Ficus trees on Stevenson Street in June was not pollarding. The trees were seriously damaged, and some may die. Those that survive will require more intensive maintenance to remain sound, and they may never provide the environmental benefits they did prior to being topped.

      • Ben Bauman says:

        NO – you are wrong. This is acceptable practice except to the idiots in the City who do are behind the times. Here is 3rd party proof.

        • Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable says:

          No, I’m really not. See the other posts about what “pollarding” is, and how what was done here ain’t it.

  16. george says:

    Those are chinese elms. They’re fucked.

  17. biglippedkneegro says:

    Trees are dumb, it’s not like they do anything. GAAAAW!!

  18. Richard says:

    I have a tree sort of like that out in front of my apartment. The first time my landlord trimmed it back to the trunk like that I was horrified. However, the next year, it all grew back and seemed fine. He did that every year or two for long before I got there. Then, some years ago, he stopped pruning it. Now, it actually needs another chopping back because it’s growing out of control into the power lines and such, and doesn’t look as nice (because all the branches are spindly and long), but he can’t prune it because of the tree topping rule.

    So, unsure if the topping is unilaterally bad for ALL trees, but the tree in front of my apartment seems to have suffered from lack of pruning.

    • Ben Nash says:

      Yes, you are correct. This species of trees are regularly topped in SF to this extreme level, and 2 years later they’re always back. The city even alternates different sides of the streets and different blocks. You experienced what I experienced over 10 years ago, and now the rest of the Mission is catching up. You can tell who is new to the city and who isn;t/

      • Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable says:

        Why do you keep saying this? What kind of trees do you think these are?

        • snail_trail says:

          Can we get someone, or maybe anyone, who knows a god damn thing about trees! Jesus, as always, I am surrounded by arm-chair experts everyday in the bay area and yet no one knows a stitch about topping trees. Is there a UC Davis grad in the house or do we need to get someone from Texas A&M involved??

          Forget that the greek community has built and maintained a church for the past 156 years, now they need guidance from some know it all media/social/tech savvy 20 and 30 somethings.

          Boy, the chutzpa of some people. Relax, this church and it’s tree’s will be here long after you’ve go back to Ohio.

          • Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable says:

            Check out the above posts from the guy at FUF, he explains very clearly about what these trees are, how they should be cared for, and why what was done to these specific trees was Not A Good Thing.

  19. SomethingElse says:

    That’s called pollarding, not topping. This is definitely NOT the right time of year for radical pruning. I hope the ficus trees recover!

    • David in SF says:

      No it is not. Pollarding only removes small branches, not core branches that support the life of the tree. Some of those branches were several inches think. I can’t make out what kind of tree this is but I can tell it is not a broadleaf or needle leaf tree – and therefore is not a candidate for topping.

  20. Nota Hippocrite says:

    Only reason for Mission Mission brats to be upset about this is that they’ll never be able to hang a swing on them.

    • Ben Nash says:

      The rumor I was told was that the city does this extreme pruning to keep the homeless from sleeping in them.

  21. C.R.E.A.M. says:

    Who would have known that, not only are the readers of Mission Mission all attorneys, urban planners and art critics, but also professional arborists? Well done, Internet, well done.

  22. BillSF says:

    So, the property owners of SF are responsible for damage done to sidewalks and sewer lines but we have no control over removing the trees.

    The city can just drop off an affidavit indicating they will accept 100% financial responsibility for any and all damage caused by trees they feel I need a “permit” for or permission to cut down and I will happily keep them.

    I actually do not see how it is even LEGAL to make people financially responsible for damage, but not allow them to be cut down without permission / fines. It’s not my fault the city stupidly installed a sewer system made of clay pipes, nor my fault they allow trees to be planted without at least some sort of steel / concrete substrate to limit root growth into sewer pipes or nearby building foundations.

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