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City works to reform tree rules


The city is gearing up to untangle the mess of rules governing the planting, cutting, care and maintenance of trees, both public and private.

In a briefing to the Portland Planning Commission last month, city planner Roberta Jortner and Morgan Stacey, chair of a stakeholders committee, discussed the Citywide Tree Project, an effort to make sense of the city’s laws regarding trees and to increase the overall canopy — the amount of ground covered by trees and their branches. Portland currently has a 26 percent total canopy, Jortner said, which is “better than some, notably Seattle (18 percent), but not as good as others, such as Baltimore (34 percent). The project has specific goals to increase the coverage in public right of ways from the current 17 percent to 35 percent, and industrial areas from a current 7 percent to 15 percent.”

Stacey noted that six different bureaus have regulations regarding trees. “The magnitude of the city codes makes it difficult to see how they work together,” he said. In fact, they frequently don’t; the rules are confusing, contradictory and inconsistently applied. “One owner may be exempt from regulation while his next-door neighbor must undergo review to remove a single tree.” When trees are cut to make way for new development, “the replacement requirements are not clear.”

Often, “the codes don’t distinguish between majestic and nuisance trees,” Stacey said. This is a particularly big issue in parts of mid-Multnomah County, where mature Douglas firs and sequoias give neighborhoods their character and appeal. Once some of such trees are removed, “the neighboring trees are more exposed, more vulnerable and more of a hazard.”

According to Stacey, the laws are not consistently enforced, in part because “inspectors are not trained arborists, and may not recognize what is a big deal.”

The stakeholders committee is pushing for rules that are “transparent, consistent, equitable and efficient,” Stacey said. “We need to bring the codes and processes together to the greatest extent possible.”

Committee members are calling for creation of a universal tree manual. They also say there should be a more uniform permit system with requirements for all land use zones, and a single point of contact for anyone seeking information about tree rules.

As part of land use reviews, tree preservation should receive “an early assessment, not what’s left over after everything else is planned for,” Stacey said. Pruning and thinning trees should be encouraged as an alternative to cutting them down. “It’s hard, if not impossible, to preserve a damaged tree, so the emphasis should be on preventing damage in the first place.”

Jortner suggested allowing communities to devise their own neighborhood tree policies, and to pay for tree planting and preservation with a development tax akin to the 1 percent for art programs.

She added, “People care about trees as a living amenity. When they’re gone, they’re gone, at least for awhile.” She conceded, “They do (present) some challenges and costs, management, hazards (and) constraints on development.”

Committee member Bonny McKnight, Russell Neighborhood Association chair, told PPC, “The important thing about this project was the approach taken. A number of viewpoints were represented. We were there to reach a conclusion acceptable to everyone. A key starting point was clearing up the confusion and complexity. The issues need to be dealt with in a comprehensive manner.”

McKnight also said, “A tree on my property doesn’t belong just to me. It provides cooling and heating, clean water and air, and habitat for all living things, not just for humans. We need to avoid being a city that’s not used to big trees. The tree manual idea is great.”

It became apparent that committee members were not of one mind on all points. Developer Jeff Fish, also a stakeholders committee member, who described himself as the anti-Christ, told PPC, “I want to preserve all the 100-year-old trees that I can, but we need to increase density within the urban growth boundary to preserve other trees.” He complained of micro-management by city officials and said, “It’s hard to preserve trees and meet code requirements.” Fish was once ordered by a city bureau to plant 11 trees in a five-by-five-foot space, and he ultimately planted three. He didn’t initially object because “the point was to avoid an adjustment process that would have cost me thousands of dollars. It’s hard for us in the construction industry to understand why we must preserve this tree and not that tree.”
An earlier speaker at the briefing noted that Portland State University had rearranged the placement of its library in order to preserve a heritage tree. Referring to this, Fish said, “That’s great if you have a big lot to work with. We’re working with much smaller lots.”

City forester and stakeholders committee member David McAlister told PPC, “Fix what’s broken, not what’s working,” and urged the commission not to regulate public trees managed by the Parks Bureau. “Emphasize education and incentives rather than regulations,” he said. “If we over-regulate, people will ignore the laws. But where there are regulations, they need to be enforced and the penalties increased.”

McAlister’s approach did not go over well with PPC.

“Why should there be separate rules for public and private trees?” commission member Howard Shapiro asked. “You say your system’s working, but in some ways it’s not. I would need a good reason for two sets of regulations.”

PPC Chair Don Hanson agreed, saying, “A tree’s a tree.” He agreed with Jortner that trees should have their own chapter in the zoning code and treated as infrastructure, acknowledging that this was long overdue. He also endorsed early planning for tree preservation.

Commission member Irma Rodriguez said she quit a federal job to move from Washington D.C. to Portland and commented, “I can’t believe Baltimore beat us (in tree canopy).” She endorsed most goals but added, “We need to be cautious. Fish is being honest with us.” While others are building “huge houses for insane amounts of money, he’s dealing with first-time home buyers.” In other words Fish is providing a service to lower income people and the commission needs to be careful to not make his job impossible.

Commission member Andre Baugh, a former employee of the Portland Office of Transportation, said, “It’s hard for even the city to get through the regulations. What the Bureau of Development Services wants and the Bureau of Environmental Services wants isn’t always the same thing.”

Commission member Amy Cortese, who said she once owned a nursery with an inventory of 17,000 trees, endorsed a single set of regulations. Of neighborhood tree plans, she said, “(They) make a lot of sense to me; they’re a way for people to brand their neighborhoods. We’ve been talking about this issue since I got here, and we were talking about it before that, and now we need to maintain our momentum.”

McKnight later noted that the proposed tree manual is the only one of the process’s proposals that is in the city budget this year, and even that is in danger of being cut.
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