In the sparse shade of one of the many Queen Palm trees along Third Avenue in Hillcrest, Jose Ruelas was cleaning up hundreds of rotting, gumball-sized palm berries splattered on the sidewalk.

“The palm trees are pretty. They give the city a good look,” Ruelas said. “But now they kind of don’t.”

Ruelas has been a professional gardener for 20 years. This year is the first that he’s had to clean up the orange berries. Customers with homes on palm-lined streets have complained and asked him why the city hasn’t trimmed the trees to prevent the falling mess.

He doesn’t know, he tells them. All he knows is the berries have been littering sidewalks and gutters incessantly across the city, creating a slipping hazard that he has to clean up.

Overhead, dead palm fronds drooped low, ready to fall with a strong gust. Thick clusters of mature berries dangled beside them.

Palm trees, the postcard, picture-perfect icon of the San Diego good life, are falling victim to neglect across town, as city budget cuts have all but eliminated municipal tree trimming.

“It’s like this all over,” Ruelas said.

Trees planted on curbsides and in the public right of way are the city’s property, and it is the city’s responsibility to maintain them.

But in recent years, San Diego has slashed its budget for tree trimming again and again. In 2007, the city spent more than $2 million to maintain its 200,000 trees. The city’s 30,000 palm trees got a preventive pruning once a year, to snip dying palm fronds and nip berry clusters in the bud.

Today, the city’s tree trimming budget is down to $1.1 million, with $300,000 of that allocated for palm trees. The city has canceled contracts with private palm trimming companies. With broadleaf trees — oaks, eucalyptus, jacarandas — it only responds to emergency reports, like when branches and limbs obstruct stop signs and traffic lights. Once on the scene, crews will trim the entire tree, but none nearby.

Even more budget cutting — and less tree trimming — may be on the way. The city’s General Services Department stands to lose another half of its tree trimming budget if Mayor Jerry Sanders’ proposed 2012 budget cuts become reality. If that happens, director Mario Sierra said, city crews will scale back even more. Instead of pruning an entire tree, they’ll only trim the single branch causing the problem. The budget for palm tree trimming, he said, “will be nothing.”

The unfortunate reality is that palm trees, more than any other city tree, require regular maintenance to stay safe and attractive. Many of the native broadleaf shade trees in the city’s inventory stay attractive with full bodies and minimal maintenance.

But palm trees were never meant in San Diego at all. They were imported from the very moments San Diego began to develop in the early 20th century by developers who thought they complemented the region’s temperate climate. But the aesthetics came at a price. The trees needed regular trimming to prevent overgrowth and the proliferation of the berry bundles, where rats are known to nest.

Today, the neglect is on display throughout the city. On Georgia Street near Balboa Park, a homemade cardboard sign attached to a large palm tree warned drivers considering parking nearby: “Caution: Falling Stumps.”

From his porch on Third Avenue in Hillcrest, David Roberts once thought the palm trees were an attractive feature of the street where he’s lived for 30 years. Not anymore.

The 64-year-old has gotten used to hearing the familiar thump of palm berries hitting the cars below. And he has watched his elderly neighbors struggle to get down the street with walkers and canes because of the slippery berries covering the sidewalks. His gardeners spend as many as 30 minutes extra each week cleaning them up. He’s never seen the palm berries so out of control or so many palm fronds on the street.

“Autos constantly pick up so many berries they sound like they’re fitted with snow tires,” he said in an email. “Berries and fronds crash on parked cars causing damage to paint and breaking windows. The sound goes on all night.

“It’s like being in a war zone.”

For months, Roberts tried to get the city to trim the palm trees. He wrote the Mayor’s Office without response, but he did hear back from the office of his councilmember, Todd Gloria.

The councilmember’s suggestion: Do it yourself.

Roberts was livid. He didn’t think he and neighbors should have to pay more than $200 a pop to get someone else’s trees trimmed.

But that’s becoming increasingly common. Requiring residents or community groups like maintenance assessment districts to pay for tree trimming has become a reality of the city’s budget woes, Sierra said. And the city faces other maintenance challenges. Crews once manually watered city trees that were not within range of sprinklers. That has stopped, leaving those trees dependent on scant rainfall for survival.

The budget crunch is so bad that in an effort to avoid new maintenance responsibilities, the city will not approve requests to plant trees from applicants who do not agree to care for and water them themselves.

Sierra can already foresee the problems the city will face because it can’t care for the trees it already owns.

“We’re going to have trees that are not going to be as healthy as they should be if they’re properly trimmed. In a few years our sidewalks are going to be damaged as a result of the roots that are uplifting them,” he said. “We’re going to get more calls of branches breaking off because they aren’t trimmed. We’re going to be in a much more responsive mode, which in the long run will cost us a lot more.”

Not only in repair costs, but potentially in lawsuits and damage claims, too.

Since 2007, the city has paid more than $170,000 to settle claims from residents who said they fell because of uplifted tree roots, or that falling palm fronds and tree branches injured them, damaged their cars or affected other property.

In lawsuits, Sierra said, courts have typically ruled in favor of the city when it was clear the city had tried to immediately address potential hazards. But immediately responding to complaints is no longer possible except in the highest risk cases, he said.

Instead of replacing a sidewalk damaged by uplifted roots, the city will resort to patching it over with asphalt. Instead of cleaning up sidewalks full of the slippery berries, it will inform residents that it’s their responsibility, in the hope of transferring liability for injuries to property owners, and not the city.

But he has no doubt that the patchwork solutions will only shield the city from liability and decaying trees for so long.

“Going forward, if the funding isn’t there,” he said, “I can anticipate that there will be lots of problems in the future.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter:

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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