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S.F. bureaucrats gave woman a choice: Remove free library or pay $1,400 after one anonymous complaint

San Francisco Chronicle 3/9/2023 Heather Knight

The sidewalk in front of the lovely Victorian home on Pine Street boasts the best of San Francisco. 

There’s beauty in the pots of purple pansies. There’s art in the yarn-wrapped tree, the colors changed regularly. There’s quirky humor in the cherubic statue adorned in St. Patrick’s Day paraphernalia. There’s community in the bench for tired walkers, a box of dog treats and a Little Free Library with ever-changing books including, the other afternoon, “That Cheese Plate Will Change Your Life.”

For more than a decade, Susan Meyers’ front sidewalk proved a cheerful hub in her Lower Pacific Heights neighborhood — until one anonymous grump called 311. In this city notorious for giving tremendous credence to solitary complainers — who have the right to halt housing projects, foil their neighbors’ housing remodels and stall emergency transit projects — that one call compelled a visit from a Public Works inspector.

And soon, Meyers’ adorable little library had a notice affixed to it with bright blue tape giving her two choices: Remove the bench and the library or pay $1,402 for a “minor encroachment permit.”

Even though there’s plenty of space on the wide sidewalk for people to walk, push their strollers or pass by in wheelchairs. Even though the home’s front stairs stretch farther into the sidewalk than the bench or library. Even though legions of neighbors love the setup and want it to stay. 

Meyers’ neighbors have offered to create a GoFundMe to raise the $1,402 for a permit, but she doesn’t want to go that route. The 79-year-old therapist and her husband, a retired lawyer, could pay the fee, but why should they?

Public Works says the couple doesn't have to pay the fee for now while the department develops a new program to make it easier to add benches, free libraries and other neighborhood amenities, but the details of that proposal aren't yet clear.

“It’s the principle of it,” Meyers told me about getting the notice. “When you’re trying to raise spirits in a city at a very low time, that shouldn’t be punished.”

Meyers and her husband bought the home about 50 years ago, she said, adding it was previously used as a workshop by Evel Knievel’s promoter and was filled with posters, T-shirts, sawdust and plywood. They carefully remodeled the now-pristine home and the front garden lined with rows of red tulips.

Meyers first installed the bench about 25 years ago and added the Little Free Library about 10 years ago, she said. She decorates the items and tree for each holiday, inviting people to leave messages about what they love on Valentine’s Day and what they’re grateful for on Thanksgiving. 

She sounds like the sweetest woman in San Francisco offering her neighbors a welcome jolt of joy. So what’s the problem?

It’s just the latest eye-rolling example of City Hall’s out-of-whack priorities. The same city that mostly shrugs at open-air fentanyl markets, rampant property crime and reckless driving cares intently about the minutiae of what people do with their homes, yards and businesses — and small parts of sidewalks.

Last month alone brought news stories about the city requiring Bernal Heights neighbors to get a $1,402 permit for 20-year-old benches and slapping Chinatown small businesses with fines for decades-old awnings that violated building codes. Both of those cases were prompted by, you guessed it, anonymous complaints. New York City has Batman. We have Complaint Man.

Sydney McDowell, who lives a few blocks from Meyers, said she loves taking her dog, Lucy, and her 5-year-old daughter to the Little Free Library for treats and books. She couldn’t believe it when she saw the Public Works notice the other day, remembering when she was fined for placing a sandwich board promoting her physical therapy practice on a sidewalk.

“Of all the things the city should be spending its time and resources on, this is not the first thing I would select,” McDowell told me. “What is the need to regulate Little Free Libraries? And why after all these years? It just feels like in this day and age, and in this city, any type of way to bring neighbors together, we should be celebrating.”

Another neighbor, Vickie Billings, said she and her husband are in their 70s and walk a few miles each day. It’s the uneven, poorly maintained sidewalks all over the city, not the library, that are the danger, she said.

Meyers said she has spoken with Public Works and that officials there have been sympathetic, but said “their hands are tied.” Meyers said Public Works offered her a third path: seeking special legislation from her supervisor, Catherine Stefani, for an exemption from getting the permit, which doesn’t sound like a great use of the board’s time. 

Stefani said Wednesday that Meyers’ library “has been a beloved community resource for years. I am working with Public Works to ensure that we can come to a solution that will ensure that it will remain there for years to come.”

After I inquired about Meyers’ predicament, Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon said the department is developing a neighborhood benefits permit program that will allow residents like Meyers or neighborhood groups to seek permission to install benches, little libraries, tiled stairways and murals in the public right of way.

Creating yet another permit in this city already rife with them may sound counterproductive, but Gordon explained it’s necessary to ensure the objects don’t impede access for disabled people and that the permit seeker assumes responsibility for maintenance and liability. The details are still being worked out, though Gordon said it will be “low barrier and low cost.”

She said Meyers and others in her situation will be granted an extension through April as the department works to create the permit program, though Meyers will eventually have to get the new permit.

In the meantime, the little library and its stack of books can stay in place. In this bureaucratic city, that counts as a happy ending.

Reach Heather Knight:; Twitter: @hknightsf

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