Even in Portland, trees are controversial. Or maybe, especially in Portland.

For years, city officials and nonprofits such as Friends of Trees have been working to help people understand that the planting strip between the street and the sidewalk in front of their house is actually a public right of way. The trees in those four or five feet of grass, gravel or cement belong to the city — though homeowners can be held responsible for their maintenance.

But distinguishing who is responsible for what will become even more difficult this year when the city begins implementing its new tree code, which stretches public interest to most trees on private property, even those in backyards.

In 2011, Portland City Council approved a new tree code, but money for enforcement was never released, so the new code has never been implemented. But in December, Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who heads the Bureau of Environmental Services, along with commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman, committed to funding enforcement. BES officials say they are shooting for implementation by Jan. 1, 2015.

The new rules give the city the same control over front and backyard trees as the old rules did over trees in planting strips.

“It tries to treat trees on public and private property as similarly as possible,” says Jennifer Karps, Urban Forest Program canopy coordinator for the BES. Virtually all homeowners will need permits to remove trees. And that permit could come with a price.

The rules are complicated. Homeowners who want to cut down trees between 12 and 20 inches in diameter will be required to get a $35 permit and plant a replacement tree. Initially, that will mean a trip to a city office to obtain the permit, though eventually city officials hope the process can be handled online.

Trees larger than 20 inches in diameter also will require a $35 permit and a replacement tree. Also, the larger trees will include a process with public notice and inspectors and the possibility of neighbors contesting the tree removal. Inspectors will have the authority to rule that a homeowner cannot take down a healthy tree — an authority that until now they only had over properties that could be divided for development.

Even pruning large backyard trees will come under city regulation, since improper pruning can kill a tree.

The impetus for the new rules came from concerns about trees being lost to new development within the city. Some developers, Karps says, would purchase property and remove all the trees, then let the property sit idle. Later, when they decided to develop the property, they would skirt rules requiring them to plant new trees to replace old ones. And some developers would simply cut down trees without getting city permits, so nobody would know they needed to be replaced, Karps says.

The new code establishes wider city authority over private property trees, makes clearer which city bureaus are responsible for which trees, and is supposed to streamline the process for getting information and permits about trees.

The positive effects from trees — reduced erosion, cleaner air, stormwater management and animal habitat — are felt throughout a neighborhood, not just by those who live on the property with trees, Karps says.

“If you have a 50-inch white oak in your backyard, what the new code is saying is that tree is a neighborhood asset,” Karp says. “When you remove that 50-inch oak tree you change the character of your neighborhood. What the new code is trying to say is that's a big deal, and we have to have some sort of mitigation.”

The new trees program will take seven full-time employees to administer and perform inspections at an estimated first-year cost of about $750,000 to come from the city's general fund. Eventually, tree permit fees will help pay part of the cost of the program.

Karps says city officials are well aware that the new rules will rub some people the wrong way.

“It's absolutely controversial,” she says. “We're trying to walk the line between not telling people what they can and cannot do on private property, but also recognizing that trees transcend property boundaries with the benefits they provide.”

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