Oakland Overgrown 

More than 250,000 trees along city streets are growing out of control because of deep budget cuts.

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North Oakland homeowner Paul Patropulos recently discovered what it's like to be passed over by the city's tree crews for more pressing concerns. Last month, he called public works to report an overgrown, diseased ornamental pear tree growing in the sidewalk in front of his property that's thick with dead limbs. A call center employee asked Patropulos whether it was hazardous; he said yes, noting that he was worried that one of the limbs could fall on a pedestrian. Still, "she pretty much said that it was unlikely that they were gonna do it," Patropulos said. Sure enough, he never heard back. Now he's faced with having to hire a contractor.

Likewise, when the Rockridge Business Improvement District learned that the city had no money to prune the 144 trees lining College Avenue between Broadway and Alcatraz Avenue, many of which were growing against buildings or in front of street signs, member businesses voted to take matters into their own hands. They ended up paying the Valley Crest Tree Company $24,000 to perform the work for them last month. "It's become a fact of life," said District Operations Manager Chris Jackson.

Now, the West Oakland Green Initiative hopes to get in on the maintenance act. It's currently working with city staff to help train volunteers to prune young trees from the ground, using only hand tools. "We need to pick that up as well," said Morales. "It's being responsible stewards. ... The city still holds trees in a high place. So it's like, 'How can we do this together?'"

Trees may be hallmarks of a sustainable city, but Oakland's current approach toward tree maintenance and planting is fraught with challenges. Volunteers can't climb trees with chainsaws or remove fallen limbs from streets, and organizations often rely on uncertain funding for new trees and supplies. Also, as overtime emergency work and legal liabilities accumulate on the city's side, budget reductions are bound to become less effective than they first appeared.

Some hope that a hybrid of city support and citizen action may provide a long-term fix — a notion that dovetails with recent calls to service by Mayor Quan. Morales agrees that residents may have to reevaluate their expectations. "Who is the city?" she questioned. "Is it the people who work there, or is it the people who live there?"

But until Oakland decides the best path forward, its overgrown tree problems will undoubtedly expand. So too will the costs from trees and limbs creating fire hazards or toppling to the ground, and from work crews who log extra overtime because they're understaffed and overmatched.

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