Homeowners down Doug firs, draw Gresham investigation

Neighbors are irate over felling of 'significant' trees, but family says they posed a threat
by: John Klicker, Christina Kowalski scoops out a handful of sawdust from the center of a Douglas fir tree that her husband, Kelly, cut down legally in the back yard of one of their homes. Two other trees in their front yard were cut down without a permit. The couple says they didn’t know the trees were protected under Gresham’s ‘significant tree’ ordinance.

Two Gresham residents who say they were just protecting their children are under investigation by the city of Gresham for illegally cutting down two protected trees on their property.

Kelly and Christina Kowalski say they had no idea the two huge Douglas fir trees in their front yard, at 446 N.E. 202nd Ave., were deemed 'significant' by the city.

But after years of broken branches, Christina convinced her husband to get rid of them, as well as a third behind their house and a fourth behind their day-care center next door.

Some neighbors are outraged that the couple cut down trees protected under the city's significant trees program.

Established in 1990, the program now includes 38 entries ranging from one tree to a grove of more than 100.

The two protected trees the Kowalskis cut down were part of a grove of more than 50 Douglas firs along Northeast 202nd Avenue between Stark and Glisan streets. Reaching heights of up to 150 feet, the trees line both sides of 202nd Avenue, creating a cathedral-like effect compared to that of the redwoods forests in Northern California.

Neighbors livid

That's why some neighbors are irate. 'They're supposed to be protected,' says Virginia Booth, a neighbor who served on the city's tree preservation committee.

Trees within 50 feet of the middle of 202nd Avenue are considered significant and thereby protected, says Ann Pytynia, Gresham's development planning supervisor. To remove a significant tree, the owner must receive a tree removal permit by proving to a city hearings officer that the tree is a hazard. The process is free.

Virginia's husband Harold heard the roar of chainsaws Saturday, July 15, and again Sunday, July 16, but figured someone was trimming a tree.

Then he walked up to the corner of 202nd and Glisan and saw two Douglas firs completely stripped of their branches in preparation for removal.

The Booths suspect many of their neighbors don't know they own significant trees. As the original owners of the modest 1940s and 1950s homes are dying, new owners are putting down roots.

Protecting life and limb

Kelly Kowalski says he had no idea that two of the four trees were protected until a neighbor pointed it out while he was cutting them down.

Raised in Damascus, Kowalski says he bought the house, as well as one next door on the corner, in 1984. In 1999, he and his family moved to Baker and rented out the two little houses. His wife Christina says the tenants asked them to remove the two huge trees out front because so many branches fell during the winter.

Last September, the family returned to Gresham. It wasn't until last winter's ice storm that they saw how dangerous the trees were.

As their younger children - ages 5 through 11 - stood outside waiting for the school bus, a branch six inches thick came crashing down, missing their 5-year-old daughter by about four feet.

"I can replace a tree, but you can't replace a child.' - Christina Kowalski

Branches also flew off a tree behind the day-care, taking out a flagpole and crashing into the door. 'I've had branches come down and put holes in my roof,' Kelly says.

They worried about the safety of their children, including six sons ages 18, 17 (twins), 11, 10 and 7, and their daughter. The trees were a risk to their day-care clients, ages six weeks to 4 years old. Plus, they posed a hazard to both structures, not to mention neighboring homes.

Advised to remove

They called an arborist, who advised them to remove four trees - the two significant trees, plus two more behind the houses. The trees were rotting below where they'd been topped years ago. Insects resembling big black ants had invaded both significant trees, one of which also had cracks and a twisted growth pattern.

But the arborist wanted $4,800 for the job, so Kelly says he cut the trees himself.

Gesturing toward a cross section of wood from one of the significant trees, Christina puts her fingers in gaps between the growth rings. Reaching into the middle of another piece of wood, she removes a handful of what resembles sawdust. 'It's dead,' she says.

Kelly also is shocked that the significant tree designation means the city decides whether he can remove trees from his own property. 'I never knew there was anything that would override a homeowner's concern for his family,' he says. '… If I own the land, I should be able to protect my family. I don't want to wait until it kills my kids.

His wife agrees. 'We love the trees but love the kids more,' she says. 'I can replace a tree, but you can't replace a child.'

Not the first time

The Kowalskis are not the only residents on 202nd to illegally remove a significant tree.

In 1998, an elderly homeowner about a block away cut down a significant tree in her front yard without a permit.

The 120-foot-tall Douglas fir was at least 75 years old and 'completely dead,' says Ken Onyima, a senior city planner who handled the case. 'There wasn't even any needles on it.'

Onyima still has a cartoon about the case on his office wall. In it an SWAT team member yells at a little old lady, 'Drop the pruners, grandma, and nobody gets hurt.'

A hearings officer eventually granted a retroactive tree removal permit based on an arborist's report stating that the tree was a hazard to public safety, pedestrians, traffic and personal property.

The tree had been damaged due to 'natural or accidental causes,' which lead the city to strip the tree of its 'significant status.'

It was the least city officials could do. After all, the cause of the tree death's was attributed to sewer and road construction that damaged its root system.

Art Israelson lives about a block from the 1998 stump and about two blocks from the Kowalskis.

He says hazardous trees are not uncommon for the grove. Most of the protected trees are not old growth but second growth. Many have been topped, resulting in extensive rot and trees that fall in the wet, windy winter months. If fact, one tree fell last winter directly across the street from his house.

Urban infrastructure - roads, pipes, the sewer lines required when Rockwood was annexed into Gresham in the 1980s - all took a toll on root systems. 'It's a wonder that more of them don't fall down,' Israelson says.

With that in mind, Israelson can sympathize with owners of hazardous significant trees. 'If it's a proven hazard, they should be removed,' he says.

But Israelson doesn't sympathize with the Kowalskis. 'There are procedures they are supposed to follow, and they didn't,' he says.

The Booths agree. 'It's one thing to do it legally,' Harold Booth says. 'It's another thing just to do it.'

Check rules before cutting

Before you cut a Gresham tree, contact the city for a code tutorial. The city has many detailed rules about everything from trimming significant trees to removing street trees.

Those who remove a significant tree can face the following penalties:

• Civil penalties up to three times the value of the tree. An arborist, hired at the expense of the violator, determines that value.

• A court order could allow the city to confiscate the cut trees so the violator can't profit off them. The courts also may order the violator to pay all confiscation-associated costs.

• A $50 fine for each 'point of damage' to a significant tree. Examples of points of damage are a removed branch, a damaged root or a nail driven into the tree to publicize a garage sale.

• The violator also could be required to replace the cut trees with 'like trees that equal the replacement value of the lost trees.'

Find a significant tree in your neighborhood

Members of Gresham's Tree Preservation Committee nominates trees for significant tree status, but property owners must agree to the designation, said Committee Chairwoman Glenna Borg.

Significant trees can have historic value, such as Gresham's Centennial Tree, a big leaf maple at West Gresham Elementary School. They can just be a particularly stunning specimen, like a Tulip tree at 456 S.E. Roberts. Or they can be unusual, such as a rare American chestnut tree at 175 S.W. Towle Ave.

To find out if you have a significant tree on your property, or to nominate a tree for consideration, log onto Gresham's Web site at www.ci.Gresham.or.us. Under city services, select advisory committees and click on 'tree preservation.' Then select the tree preservation committee link. There you can access a list of significant trees, complete with addresses.

A word of caution: The list was last updated three years ago, so more recent additions are not included.