Cut down a tree that is messing with my sewer line?
February 1, 2011 1:09 PM   Subscribe

A mature sidewalk tree is growing through our sewer line and has already caused disgusting explosions of sewage. Yet the city says we can't cut it down. What can we do?

(Anonymized because friends who know about this situation read AskMeFi.)

We live in San Francisco. About 18 months ago, our plumber repaired a crack in the sewer pipe under our driveway. He emphasized that this was a temporary fix, and that we would have to replace the whole pipe at some point.

The 30-year-old malaleuca has heaved up through the sidewalk. We have applied concrete three times around its base, as recommended by the city, but it keeps cracking and bursting out. I'm worried that someone will fall and sue us.

Four years ago, we had a hearing with the DPW and lost -- they would not let us take out a healthy tree, even though we offered to plant a smaller, native replacement with shallower roots. It costs $300 just to set up a hearing, and seems to be biased in favor of saving the tree.

They rejected our statement from a licensed arborist who said the tree is unsuitable for the sidewalk, as well as photos of other removed trees that had caused less sidewalk upheaval than ours.

The plumber has offered to snake a camera down the pipe to show the tree roots. Would that be valid evidence at another hearing? He also said he would write up an estimate for replacing the pipe. We also unofficially talked to another arborist who suggested poisoning the tree with saltwater (but then what if it falls on our house? I am NOT seriously considering this).

What would happen if we just get the tree removed without getting a permit to do so? At this stage, a fine seems preferable to the ongoing bills, sidewalk chaos, and faecal fug. My husband has jokingly talked about crashing our car into the tree so it has to be cut down.

Can anyone with more arcane knowledge of San Francisco law help us decide what to do next?

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I bet that if you had the tree removed, and re-planted a new tree, on the weekend - I bet the city would never even notice.

But you might want to check with a lawyer about what the penalty would be - it would stink to get a misdemeanor on your record over this.
posted by Flood at 1:16 PM on February 1, 2011

ring bark it when no one is looking.
posted by the cuban at 1:28 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here in the Seattle metro area, it's usually been the neighbors who notice the tree is gone and report you to the authorities, who then respond with a fine.

It costs $300 just to set up a hearing, and seems to be biased in favor of saving the tree.

It probably is, the tree was there before you and barring anti-social behavior on your part, will live long past you are gone. What do your neighbors think of the tree? Given your desire to hide from your friends, it sounds like your cutting plan is unpopular. If that's the case, the long term damage to neighborhood relations may be far more unpleasant than the fine.

Have you tried contacting whomever is responsible for handicap accessibility issues? A broken sidewalk that needs to be navigated by wheelchairs might get more sympathetic response than a problem that is just your own.
posted by nomisxid at 1:31 PM on February 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

We also unofficially talked to another arborist who suggested poisoning the tree with saltwater (but then what if it falls on our house? I am NOT seriously considering this).

Not that it's a great solution, but dying trees don't fall over like dying people. The dead tree would probably stand right where it is for several years unless someone removed it. It would only fall over after its trunk had thoroughly rotten out, which would take a long time.
posted by jon1270 at 1:32 PM on February 1, 2011

Salting it is going to be way more discreet than girdling it. Not that I'm suggesting doing so, I'm just saying, one of these things is less obvious than the other.
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:33 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Killing the tree won't make it instantly fall down, in fact it will take a year or two from death to falling down mininmum. So sabotaging the tree will give you lots of time to get it removed as a hazard. I am amazed the city won't let you remove an obvious hazard tree, but I hear San Francisco is kinda nutty that way. Cutting down a dead tree is always allowed.

You can also get your sewer line redone with something jointless like pvc that will stop root intrusion. I have also heard that a copper sulfate drip down your pipes will kill all the roots and maybe kill the tree. This can be hard on pipes though, especially iron or concrete. You can also sprinkle the copper sulfate on the ground at the drip line to kill the tree. WARNING copper sulfate is nasty stuff and is very bad for the fish (really-they can't smell with it in the water) so use sparingly and with caution. There are some non copper root killers out there but i don't know how well they work.

Ring barking will work but it leaves a scar on the tree that is very noticeble.
posted by bartonlong at 1:38 PM on February 1, 2011

Have you called your supervisor's office about this? It's worth a shot, and might get quicker action than waiting around for the tree to get unhealthy enough to be declared a hazard. (Also, it's still winter, technically, and we could still have wind and rainstorms, which would not be awesome for a sick tree than could fall on your house.)
posted by rtha at 1:49 PM on February 1, 2011

Is it impractical to saw the roots where they're causing problems? I often see this done to alleviate sidewalk upheaval, but the sewer is a separate problem.
posted by rhizome at 2:03 PM on February 1, 2011

I'll give you two opinions...

1) AKAIK, you don't own the sewage line until it actually comes into your house -- under the driveway doesn't count. This sewage line is broken, yes? Contact the sewer department from that angle -- the sewage line is broken and causing a health hazard. They may order you to cut down the tree and repair the damage to their line.

2) Just cut the fucker down and don't say anything to anybody. I'll bet you one whole U.S. dollar that nobody notices. It cost you $300 to set up a hearing. That tells me they're not paying to have people walk around and enforce shit.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:03 PM on February 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I guess I don't understand. Is this tree on your property or the city's property? If it's a street tree in the sidewalk, it's probably in the right-of-way, not your property, and not your tree to cut down. (AND i would never pay to have a tree on someone else's property cut down.)

You can sue the city for any damages the tree causes your property--the roots in the sewer line, the medical bills from the tripping hazard due to the sidewalk upheaval. Force them to pay for their own nuisance. You can even see who did the street tree plans years ago and sue them (landscape architects get sued all the time for choosing bad street trees.) My advice is to skip the tree hearing. Pay a lawyer to draft a letter to the city outlining your future action if they don't take care of their tree.

If the tree is on your property, and you need the city's permission to cut it down--again the lawyer would still be the best bet. Any interaction you have with the city to remove this tree should place more emphasis on the hazards and dangers to society than on the annoyances you're having.

(PS you may want to look into root trimming; it works wonders.)

(PPS You don't want a shallow rooted tree as an alternative; the shallow roots are causing the problems. I would look for a new cultivar of a native species that is specifically designed to be a good street tree--heat resistant, drought resistant, deep roots.)
posted by Kronur at 2:10 PM on February 1, 2011

I'd be willing to bet money that it would be noticed if the tree were suddenly gone.

For many people (including myself) the presence of trees on a street (preferably big old trees) is a major criteria when choosing where to live. Seeing trees get cut down always saddens me.

As long as there are other options I'd make killing off a living thing that has been there for a long time and could remain there for much longer a last resort choice.

As has been said before: approach the dept that manages the sewers, let them know that the city wants the tree to remain and request that the sewer line be rerouted around the tree.

I'd only consider cutting the tree down if all else fails.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:14 PM on February 1, 2011

Two last things--

I'm surprised your arborist didn't suggest root pruning.

And nothing mobilizes people faster than trees being cut down. I would avoid doing that illegally at all costs. I could hate a specific tree, but I would start calling authorities if someone was doing that. Cutting down a mature tree in front of your house will be pretty obvious.
posted by Kronur at 2:14 PM on February 1, 2011

I also thought the sewer line wasn't yours and was under the jurisdiction of the city.

Get a lawyer already! Maybe go to your council person's office first, but then get a lawyer.

You don't want hassles with your friends and neighbors. You don't want fines. You want a secure and safe sewer line.

Council Person. If that fails - lawyer.

(I don't mean get a lawyer to sue, I mean get a lawyer to start writing letters to the right folks on your behalf. There is no reason for you to muck around with this any longer, or pay more repair bills, or risk further liability. Lawyer.)
posted by jbenben at 2:15 PM on February 1, 2011

Replacing a sewer line with impermeable plastic pipe is a simple and relatively cheap process. A contractor uses a horizontal boring machine to route the pipe from your house to the city sewer line. This takes less than a day and when I had it done it cost about $4,000 for 30 feet of line. Tree roots cannot sense the water in continuous plastic pipe, so they do not grow their way into it, making this a permanent solution to the problem.

In Oregon, the sewer line from the house to the collector sewer in the street belongs to the homeowner. Likewise sidewalk trees belong to the homeowner, so the lucky homeowner gets to pay to correct deficiencies in both. I suspect the same is true in California.
posted by monotreme at 2:38 PM on February 1, 2011

The two situations when friends or family removed a mature street tree I thought they completely ruined their area of the street. street trees do more than just break your pipes. You bought in to the house with the street tree there, can't you bare the cost of replacing the pipe in PVC? And I am not sure about any litigation cases but if the tree is on council land isn't it them who would be subject to litigation if someone steps on a crack and breaks their back?
When the drive is next repaved look into some of the passive systems to save your pavement that don't involve poison. A drainage cell and geotextile bed allows good ol' air, a natural root retardant, to reduce deformation.

I know the 'easy' way is to get it removed, but do look into ways to live with you old neighbors.
posted by Raff at 2:41 PM on February 1, 2011

Frustrating situation, I'm sure.

If SF law is anything like NYC law, the sidewalk is the responsibility of the homeowner, despite the fact that it's effectively 'public'. As such, all the liability is transferred to you, which can be a complete at total nightmare.

Sucks to have it all fall to you, when you've got a big tree that keeps eating up your sidewalk and boring a hole in your wallet. Even moreso when your neighbors will get pissed at you when you take the cheaper option.

Have you reached out to the neighbors? At least one of them must have been in your shoes before and can sympathize. You can't make all of 'em happy, but perhaps you can get them to respect what you're trying to do.
posted by swngnmonk at 3:03 PM on February 1, 2011

I have seen neighborhoods make up t-shirts and protest council meetings for the sake of one tree, and it's not nearly as San Fransisco as San Fransisco is about such things.

It looks to me like DPW is primarily focused on street trees, so I second try talking with the sewer-oriented division directly, or maybe some of these folks.

Only if they can't help would I resort to letters from an attorney or calling your council member, only because chances are the attorney/council member will steer you straight towards the sewer folks.

Step three is to go to an environmental group that focuses on water/pollution issues (i.e., this is not something for the National Arbor Day Foundation.) They might not care that much over one small break that you could technically (expensively) fix yourself.
posted by SMPA at 3:44 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

According to the Municipal Code, Article 16 is what you want to look at, and in particular you need to have a peek at the Definitions, Section 806 (street tree removal), Section 808 (protection of trees) and Section 811 (penalties).

I am very much not a lawyer, but I suspect the standard of evidence for the administrative penalties isn't nearly as rigorous as that for criminal penalties, and there's a written record associating you with the desire to remove this tree.
posted by gingerest at 4:33 PM on February 1, 2011

Kronur: "I guess I don't understand. Is this tree on your property or the city's property?"

In my city, the area between the sidewalk and the street (the "Terrace"), while technically owned by the home owner is considered to be the same as a city park.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 4:57 PM on February 1, 2011

Wow. I'm a many-time actual-fax tree-hugger, and I'm a little shocked that you're being shamed for wanting to get rid of a tree that is causing "sewage explosions". Maybe those folks haven't lived with sewage explosions?

If replacing the pipe (which it sounds like you'll need to do anyway) would solve the problem, great. If not, saltwater seems like a nice, non-traceable solution - neighbors may suspect you, but unlike stealth-removal, they can't finger you. You may have to pay to have the dead tree removed, but it won't fall over - it has a great root system, obviously. And then you could plant that smaller native tree!
posted by ldthomps at 5:37 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

After reading further answers, I wanted to add something...

My little city within a city is notorious for allowing developers to demolish historic and character-filled structures to make way for condos. People sue the city, and the city often pays damages over this developer-friendly policy.

In this political climate, my neighborhood managed to protect and preserve a small house a few years ago. Do you know how we won? Because the neighborhood went apeshit and stayed apeshit for two years after the developer cut down an 80 year old tree in the back yard BEFORE they had even submitted architectural plans to the city. We won because of public outrage over tree carnage. That house slated for demo still stands because of a TREE.

I agree you should look into alternatives for the sewer line that don't include killing the tree. When I suggested the lawyer, I didn't know the sewer was most likely your responsibility.

Perhaps there are tax breaks or subsidies available in SF to mitigate laying in a new sewer line and preserving the tree?

I wasn't thinking my earlier answer through at all. Whatever remedy you seek through the city, act like preserving that tree is as important to you as saving the lives of baby unicorns. My city council is super corrupt, and even they bowed to the will of the tree lovers.

This is something you might get financial help with if you frame it correctly, but if your goal is legal permission to remove the tree, I can see why it likely won't happen. Put your energy to good use and seek tree-friendly solutions.
posted by jbenben at 6:09 PM on February 1, 2011

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