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New tree rules passed


Last month the Portland City Council adopted the Citywide Tree Project and its regulations. In March, the council had adopted a set of amendments that weakened the proposed regulations, but later added a second set that made them significantly stronger.

The project will install a single code governing the planting, cutting and pruning of trees on all public and private property in the city. It will replace existing regulations which are shared by five different bureaus and which, critics charge, are confusing, contradictory, inconsistent and badly enforced. An objective, to be achieved over time, is to create a user-friendly manual of the regulations and a 24-hour number for reporting violations.

Although many speakers supported the proposals at a February council hearing, several developers charged that the combination of new regulations and fees would retard residential development, especially on small lots. They proposed a series of amendments to the proposals. Among these were to exempt from the regulations lots smaller than 5,000 square feet with at least 85 percent building coverage - the original proposal exempted lots smaller than 3,000 square feet or with 90 percent coverage; to lower the tree preservation goal for new development from 35 percent canopy coverage to 33 percent, and allow street trees to be counted as part of this canopy.

Spokespeople for the Portland Home Builders Association said the lands affected by the changes accounted for 22 percent of Portland's residential land, but only three percent of its canopy. All these were approved by unanimous council vote.

Also approved unanimously was an amendment proposed by city staff that would reduce the need for permits to prune street trees. Under the proposal, to cut limbs up to one inch in diameter homeowners would only need to announce their intentions online, and declare that they had studied and intended to abide by good forestry practices. Staffer Hannah Kuhn noted that only .5 percent of property owners seek permits now, 90 percent of them are granted, and the current practice is “not a good use of our resources.”

The council was divided on several other amendments. One proposal would have given the Bureau of Development Services flexibility to reduce required rear setbacks, and move houses further from the street, if doing so would allow a tree to be saved.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz argued strongly against the amendment, saying, “Families need defensible space for children. This ordinance says trees are more important. I say that private space is just as important. You can replace a tree, but you can't recreate private space once it's gone.” Fritz prevailed on a three to two vote, with Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman dissenting.

Fritz lost to Fish on another issue. The proposal sets new regulations for the cutting of trees on owner occupied lots, and requires that trees at least 20 inches in diameter be replaced. Fritz had suggested reducing the size of trees that must be replaced to 12 inches, saying, “If you just go with 20 inches, you'll miss a lot of significant trees.” Fish suggested the stricter standard for lots larger than 10,000 square feet. He prevailed, with Fritz and Saltzman dissenting.

In testimony before the vote, Hazelwood activist Linda Robinson suggested a 12 inches” standard for preservation. “There are not many trees that grow to 20 inches even after 60 years,” she said. She favored the flexible rear yard amendment, saying, “I'm sorry, Amanda, but I like the flexibility of the smaller backyard setback.”

Mayor Sam Adams asked Robinson with mock anger, “Why don't you ever apologize to me when you oppose me?”

“I've known Amanda longer,” said Robinson, who served on Fritz's election campaign.

David Odom of Friends of Trees was unhappy with the proposal to count street trees as part of a developer's tree preservation requirements. “About 53 percent of the tree canopy is on private property,” he said. “We can't maintain it just with street trees.”

Then, in April, Fish proposed two new amendments. One eliminated the substandard lot exemption. A second made 12 inches the trigger size for mandatory tree replacement for trees cut on all developed single-family home sites, as proposed by Fritz the month before. Both amendments were adopted by unanimous vote.

Fish said he was motivated by compelling written testimony he had received between the March and April hearings. Regarding the second amendment, he said that the 20-inch size “means in practice that a property owner could cut down a very large tree without public review.” In addition, he said, both amendments give “the elegance of simplicity” to the ordinance.

Fritz paid tribute to volunteers who had worked for such a law. “An enormous amount of citizen involvement went into this, and the ordinance reflects it,” she said. “We need to preserve some large trees for our children, and our children's children.”

Commissioner Dan Saltzman, holding aloft the ordinance's thick binder of paperwork, said, “I dedicate my vote to all the trees who sacrificed their lives for this.”

Still to come are the implementation of the project's regulations, the manual and hotline. Project Manager Roberta Jortner says this will happen through the pending city budget process.
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