New permit process aims to encourage removal of some species in the city

Lake Oswego residents will no longer have to pay for a permit to cut down certain trees.

The city council recently approved new rules that waive the cutting permit fee when the tree being removed is considered invasive. The change took effect last week.

In the past, residents have paid $13 to $166 to apply to remove trees. But those hoping to remove invasive species can now get a permit under a free, expedited process.

The relaxed rules apply to 12 trees considered nonnative, invasive species. The dirty dozen includes Norway maple, Sycamore maple, tree-of-heaven, European white birch, English hawthorn, English holly, princess tree, white poplar, sweet cherry, black locust, European mountain ash and Siberian elm.

Planning and building services director Denise Frisbee said staff members tried to strike a balance between protecting the city's tree canopy and encouraging removal of invasive species, leading to a healthier city tree inventory in the long run.

'This will allow property owners the opportunity to remove nonnative and invasive trees without the need for compliance with the city's standard tree removal permit process and fee,' Frisbee said. 'The goal is to make it easier for citizens to remove invasive trees.'

In some cases, such as if the invasive species are in the public right of way or in areas considered environmentally sensitive lands, residents will be required to replace invasive trees they cut down. But those new trees could be smaller than what is required for mitigation when other native species are removed.

Arborist Morgan Holen, working on contract with the city, said the idea is to require mitigation where trees provide 'the greatest net benefits.'

Replacements 'help replace the lost function the original tree provided,' she said. 'Trees provide canopy cover, whereas the lower growing invasive plants don't provide the same type of canopy cover or its benefits.'

The council plans to review the program after a six-month trial period.

Some councilors believe the process should be even more simple, with invasive trees exempted entirely from any tree code requirements. Councilors initially asked for the 12 invasive species to be removed entirely from the permit process.

Frisbee said a public involvement process, also initiated at the council's request, revealed citizen concerns about overall canopy loss - the large trees that line many Lake Oswego streets are often considered neighborhood assets, regardless of their species. In addition, advisory groups saw a need for tracking which trees are removed, in part to deal with residents' concerns about trees cut down in neighboring yards and parking strips.

'This may be referred to as a permit, but it's in essence a tracking device,' Frisbee explained. 'When we come back for the program review, should we find that very few permits have been sought or issued and it's all gone very well, it's certainly an option for the council to consider moving to a complete honor system.'

'Natural evolution' of policy

Although commenters in an online forum voiced widespread support for the change, reaction at a public hearing was mixed.

On the 'open city hall' website, Paul Lyons wrote that he helped initiate Lake Oswego's original tree cutting ordinance, which aimed to prevent 'arbitrary removal of trees, especially during construction. We had observed widespread abuse.'

However, at that time, Lyons said, no one knew much about invasive tree species, and so updating the code now makes sense: 'This is the natural evolution of good public policy.'

At a hearing before the council Nov. 15, Nick Hess of Portland, representing Pacific Northwest Arborists, spoke in support of the new rules.

'A good arborist would rather prune a tree than cut one down. The exception to that is with invasive trees,' he said. 'Many of the trees listed are problematic for homeowners. They grow fast and die fast, they're unsightly and costly to maintain.

'I'm not in favor of the honor system,' he added. 'I think it's important to track.'

Walt Knapp, whose Beaverton-based company provides consulting in arboriculture, silviculture and forest ecology, called Lake Oswego's new program 'a unique approach.'

'I have not seen this in other jurisdictions,' he said. 'I think it's commendable on the part of the city to take this approach. I think invasive species, including invasive tree species, are a serious threat to our forest ecosystems.'

Representing the Waluga Neighborhood Association, Cheryl Uchida questioned whether a waiver of the permitting fee was enough to encourage invasive tree removal.

'The property owner still has to pay hundreds of dollars to remove those trees and mitigate them,' she said.

In addition, she pushed for the city to look at what happens to money citizens pay for tree cutting mitigation and tree code violations.

'The money … should be put directly back into restoring trees in our community and, more specifically, in the affected neighborhoods,' Uchida said. 'Perhaps it could also be used for removing other invasive vegetation growing on public land.'

Others worried the new invasive species program is really a backdoor approach toward curbing property owners' rights.

Lauren Hughes of Citizens for Stewardship of Lake Oswego Lands said although the group opposes the sensitive lands program, which applies stricter land-use rules to properties mapped with wildlife habitat or water resource areas, it has never taken issue with the tree code.

She said the idea of city staff offering voluntary visits to verify to-be-cut trees were indeed invasive species would lead to 'more oversight, more micromanagement of our backyards.'

In addition, she disliked that people whose properties are designated sensitive lands would face more requirements for tree replacement than others uprooting invasive species.

'This really just adds to the inequity of this program for people who are in that situation,' Hughes said. 'Frankly, we'd rather live with invasive species on our property than invasive city employees.'

Removal cost is higher

Councilors also had mixed feelings about the new rules.

'Our original goal a year ago was to encourage the removal of invasive trees. We wanted it to be simple and cheap and efficient. We didn't want a big bureaucratic process,' councilor Mary Olson said. She wasn't sure a fee waiver is enough.

'The real cost of taking out an invasive tree is the cost of hiring someone to take it out - not the permit,' Olson said.

Councilor Mike Kehoe agreed.

'We've all talked about how these are invasive species we need to get rid of,' he said. 'Any impediments or hurdles we put in the way of people make it less likely they'll take the trees out.'

On the other hand, councilor Donna Jordan said that because removal is so expensive, buying replacement trees should represent only a small part of the total cost.

'We're starting a new direction. There's no reason why we shouldn't start it carefully,' she said. 'That's all this is doing: Creating a path for us to see what actually is going to take place and then be able to manage it going forward.'

Sally Moncrieff called on the council to heed concerns of neighborhood and citizen advisory groups.

'Our street trees are critical to the character of our neighborhoods, and in all of our neighborhood plans it's clear our neighborhood associations specifically value and want to protect street trees and the wooded character of the neighborhoods,' she said. 'I am not comfortable removing that safeguard.'

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