DOZENS OF YOUNG trees reach skyward along bustling Capitol Expressway in East San Jose, their skinny branches casting small shadows on the sidewalk below. The hope is that these trees, once mature, will mitigate pollution, provide shade and beautify an otherwise stark concrete hardscape. 

But it will be a generation or two before the neighborhood’s residents will reap the benefits of these saplings. 

And meanwhile, San Jose’s overall canopy is shrinking faster than it can be replenished.

The city is working on a Community Forest Management Plan (CFMP) that would, among other things, result in the planting of hundreds of trees. But experts agree that the best way to improve the urban forest is to preserve the trees that are already here.

“Planting young trees is not going to create a healthy urban forest. A healthy urban forest has to have plenty of mature trees in it,” said Rhonda Berry, CEO of Our City Forest, an organization that plants and helps to steward young trees in Central and East San Jose.

Trees need about 30 years to reach their mature heights of 60-70 feet.

“It’s vitally important that we maintain the trees we’ve got,” said Cal Fire state urban forester Walter Passmore. He gave as example New York City’s urban forestry program, which increased that city’s tree canopy over the last decade — 80 percent of which was attributed to existing trees, not planting. 

“We really can’t solve our problem of declining tree canopy cover solely by planting. It requires good policy, good maintenance of our existing trees to achieve the goals for canopy cover that we want in any city,” said Passmore. Passmore has been the California state urban forester and the lead grant administrator for the urban and community forestry grant program since June 2021. Before that, he was the urban forester for Palo Alto, where the street trees are managed by the city instead of property owners.

Private ownership meets public policy

Good policy is a major challenge in a large city like San Jose, which has seen a 1.8 percent decline in the urban canopy between 2012 and 2018. That is because most of the city’s canopy is composed of street trees, and they are on private property.

Property owners have been responsible for maintaining street trees and sidewalks adjacent to their properties since 1951. That means trees that were planted when housing developments were first built have been under the inconsistent and sometimes indifferent care of homeowners who may not even like the street trees they steward for the city.

Take the case of Jenny Jung in the Hamann Park neighborhood between Valley Medical Center and Santana Row. She inherited three mature sycamores when she bought her house in 2013. One of the trees grew into the sewer pipes and raised up the sidewalk. San Jose Water Co. removed the tree this month, saving Jung the cost of removal and the permit process that goes along with it.

Homeowners are required to replace trees that they remove with an approved species, but Jung would rather not. She’s afraid that the next tree will cause the same issues as the last one, and she hopes that her remaining two trees will be enough. 

“I’m the gardener of the house and my extended family,” said Jung. “I have planted several fruit trees in my backyard, but I am not happy that I have to have the tree planted in front and then the city tells me I have to maintain it. It just doesn’t make sense to me. If left alone, I would probably replace it with something else that’s less work to maintain and that wouldn’t damage the property, but the city doesn’t even let us prune it without a permit, so my hands are tied.”

Homeowners must get permits to prune, remove or plant trees in the park strip adjacent to their properties. A city arborist will come inspect the tree to assess the need and approve next steps. Illegal pruning or removals are subject to fines, but there is little enforcement.

“So currently, we have a very, very thin staff for a very large city,” said Department of Transportation public information officer Colin Heyene, adding that the CFMP flags that San Jose’s financial and staffing capacity is a small fraction of what is needed to proactively manage street trees.

Maintenance isn’t mandatory

According to the CFMP, the City Community Forest Program average budget of nearly $4 million would need to increase to $20-$24 million a year to manage all public street and park trees at a sustainable level. 

The plan says that property owners spend approximately $912 every five years to maintain their street trees on average. But maintenance isn’t mandatory, nor are property owners given guidelines on how to maintain their tree. The city does not keep a watchful eye for trees that show signs of distress, so homeowners rarely receive notices to prune their trees unless crews see issues when they are working on a street for something else. They might also be notified to prune their trees or repair their sidewalk if a neighbor complains.

“Nobody is driving around the city looking for violations. It’s a request- and complaint-based process,” said Heyene.

“I thought I was being proactive in trying to maintain the tree. … We shouldn’t have even bothered asking for a permit. But we wanted to do the right thing.”

Stanley Chan, Cambrian Park resident

Bay Area Tree Specialists estimates homeowners can expect to pay from $480-$2,000 to prune their trees depending on the age of the tree and the amount of work that needs to be done. Those costs combined with the headache of getting permits, it is little surprise that homeowners don’t always volunteer to maintain their street trees.

Stanley Chan of the Cambrian Park neighborhood was moved to prune his own tree last year when the branch of a neighbor’s tree broke off and fell to the sidewalk. Chan got a permit and hired a licensed arborist to do the work. Four months later, he received a $400 citation from the city of San Jose for excessively pruning his tree.

Chan said he asked the arborist to remove as much of the overgrown branches of his street tree as they could, but more than 25 percent was removed, so he was fined. The citation also said that he would be responsible for removing and replacing the tree if it died because of the permitted, licensed pruning job.

“Had I known all of this, I might not have even gotten the permits,” said Chan. “I thought I was being proactive in trying to maintain the tree. But apparently the city feels very strongly about a certain number of trees on the street and their health. People in hindsight said they just did it by themselves. We shouldn’t have even bothered asking for a permit. But we wanted to do the right thing.”

Chopping branches, cutting corners

City arborist Russell Hansen said that property owners may hire contractors who may not follow the industry standard and may engage in harmful practices like “topping,” or the removal of the upper branches of a tree. It is cheaper, easier and faster to simply remove the entire canopy of a tree rather than going through and being selective with what is pruned from the tree.

The CFMP says that the current model creates a “disproportionate burden” on low-income residents who may not have the resources to prune their trees or repair the sidewalks, which could exacerbate disparities in canopy cover between disadvantaged and affluent neighborhoods.

Many of those residents are renters and are neither aware nor responsible for vital tree maintenance. Hansen says owners of rental properties don’t see their trees every day, so those trees aren’t receiving the level of care they might if the owner were in residence.

A row of young trees lines South Capitol Avenue next to the East Capitol Expressway. While new plantings are part of an overall effort to restore San Jose’s urban forest, tree experts say that preserving and maintaining existing trees is equally important. (Photo by Heather Allen/Bay City News Foundation)

There is a hardship program to help low-income tree owners cover the costs of maintaining their trees. People who qualify based on their income get assistance with the costs of mandatory removals, pruning or sidewalk fixes. Heyene says it is something that the city of San Jose is looking at expanding under the CFMP.

Hansen said that about 50-100 families who live at properties that require work qualify for hardship assistance annually. Requirements are based on median income levels and the number of residents. 

Hansen said that San Jose has received over 100 hardship applications in the last year “based on increased demand and supplemental funding from the city manager.” He said that the funds for the hardship assistance program were historically sufficient because the income requirements were difficult to meet, but the program was expanded in 2019 to better account for local income levels.

It is always more expensive to respond to emergencies than it is to do regular maintenance, but even regular tree maintenance is costly and owners have to be aware that there is a problem in the first place.

A lifetime of neglect

The industry recommends pruning urban trees every five to seven years to ensure a healthy canopy and prevent untimely tree failure. According to a 2014 street tree inventory that is cited by the CFMP, San Jose trees go over 100 years per pruning cycle, which means that most trees in the public right of way don’t receive the care they need in their life cycle. 

“The recommendation in the industry is that you’re looking at your tree at a minimum of every couple of years, but really you should be looking at it every single year,” said Hansen. “It’s not often where you see a pest or disease come in and 90 days later the tree is dead. It tends to be six to 10 years later, that these pests (lead to) disease and other impacts. It’s a slow decline.”

Although it is common for municipalities to leave street tree maintenance up to adjacent property owners, some cities like San Francisco have taken over street tree maintenance and have seen “significant tree occupancy,” said Passmore.

San Francisco began its StreetTreeSF initiative in 2017. The initiative prioritized pruning and care for the worst trees in the city. The city currently has its trees on a three- to five-year pruning cycle but plans to move to a longer maintenance schedule once the urban forest’s baseline conditions have improved. 

Experts and advocates alike are asking San Jose leadership to consider similar urban forest policies, but many agree that the CFMP is a good first step in taking control of a problem with the canopy that could get worse before it gets better. 

“I think people have a right to be upset that the city has left all the pruning up to them,”  said Berry. “The city manages relatively few trees in the urban forest. And even the bulk of those, the responsibility for maintenance has been given to residents and I think that they have a right to be frustrated by that.”

Meanwhile, residents like Chan and Jung would rather not have such an important responsibility rest on their shoulders.

“I think it’s either the city owning the tree or the homeowner owning the tree, because right now there’s a bit of resentment because the city plants the tree and forces us to take care of everything and cover all the costs and it doesn’t really make sense to me,” said Jung.

It may make sense for the city to take control of street trees like San Francisco did, but it would require significant policy change and a lot more funding.

And Berry says that it is easy for tree policies to get set aside. 

“Trees don’t vote,” said Berry. “That’s an issue that trees have.”