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Clackamas County to review urban forests

County commissioners told members of Urban Green that staff is looking at urban tree canopies in the area

Seventeen concerned citizens attended the Board of County Commissioners business meeting last Wednesday, Feb. 17, and presented a preliminary plan for a tree ordinance for unincorporated Clackamas County to the commissioners and a large audience.

The citizens' comments began with two three-minute presentations from Oak Grove residents Chips Janger and Ed Riddle, who are among the founders of Clackamas County Urban Green, a group dedicated to putting together a tree ordinance.

'Everyone in this room has had the experience of driving through a neighborhood and seeing that trees have been clear cut, scraped away, and every natural feature is gone forever.

'Why? Because there is no law or mandate to keep someone from buying land and doing whatever they want to. And there is nothing to stop them, unless our commissioners decide to stop them,' Janger explained.

'This is happening right now on your watch, and we are here today to describe the problem and try to get a solution enacted,' he said.

Riddle described projects in West Linn, Oak Grove and the River Forest neighborhood where 'virtually all the trees were cut down and a heron rookery was destroyed because existing county laws could not stop the destruction.'

Citizen comments

Sue Marshall, a resident of Lake Grove, said her neighborhood near Lake Oswego was losing trees and the city passed a resolution to see that 'development occurred in an appropriate way.'

She applauded the work of Urban Green and pointed out that 'a tree ordinance is consistent with and advances state, regional and county land-use policies.'

Cathy Blosser, another Oak Grove resident, added that all cities have tree conservation policies, and she urged the commissioners to help put a stop to the 'broad swath' of destruction to the urban canopy of trees.

Steve Berliner, who lives on Aldercrest Road, said that he was a member of the Complete Communities Committee in 2001 and 2002. At that time, the group met 19 times and addressed many environmental concerns.

Ultimately the Complete Communities Committee drafted 'an urban and suburban tree-cutting ordinance,' Berliner said, but no action was ever taken.

Bob Murch said Urban Green has 'taken what the Complete Communities Committee recommended,' researched other tree ordinances and ultimately crafted an ordinance that is 'adapted to the needs of the citizens of Clackamas County.'

Murch explained that the proposed ordinance 'does not apply to single-family dwelling properties that cannot be further subdivided,' and does take 'heritage trees' into consideration.

He added, 'We've done our part to help protect trees, now it's your turn,' he told the commissioners.

Susan Shawn, another member of the Urban Green group, told the commissioners that the people who had just spoken represented over '3,000 Clackamas County residents who wholeheartedly support a tree ordinance. Everywhere we go we are surprised by the groundswell of support.'

Shawn interjected a bit of controversy when she asked the commissioners to act right now by instigating a moratorium on tree cutting, as residents have told her that at least two other parcels of land will experience clear cutting in the near future.

A 'phenomenal' job

At this point, Commissioner Bill Kennemer told the group that they had done a 'phenomenal job,' but he expressed interest in hearing from a broader group.

Commissioner Lynn Peterson said the commission's staff was currently 'researching tree ordinances and conducting a tree canopy inventory,' and the commissioners were going to be looking at the issue in a study session in the upcoming week.

'What you've done here is a great way to initiate change - you've done a lot of research and narrowed down the priorities,' Peterson said.

Commissioner Martha Schrader thanked Urban Green members, noting that a tree ordinance is a 'complex issue.'

Just how complex was soon made clear when Gregg Cline, a district forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry, spoke.

His department is 'not standing in the way of the creation of a tree ordinance,' he said, but the commissioners need to understand that 'there is a set of standards and a process to follow' that is already in place.

Cline read from a letter that he submitted to the commissioners, pointing out that any tree ordinance proposed by the county must 'comprehensively address forest practices and resource protection,' or it would not meet the standards of ORS 527.722 as a 'land-use regulation for forest practices,' and would thus 'not be valid.'

Then the county attorney, Mike Judd, stepped in to note that the commissioners could not legally issue a moratorium on tree cutting.

'You can't sit here today and say everybody's got to stop cutting trees. You have to do a moratorium through an ordinance of some kind,' Judd noted.

He advised the commissioners to take what Urban Green proposed and send it to a planning committee for further study.

Commissioners react

Peterson asked her fellow commissioners to make some final comments before she closed the meeting.

'We already have had a preliminary discussion and we are committed to fast-track this. One of our sticking points is the moratorium - sometimes good intentions can have unintended consequences. Another concern is funding,' Kennemer said.

'We have directed our staff to do a tree canopy survey, we want to get together a broad group of stakeholders and we need to take a look at the standards set by the Department of Forestry,' Schrader said.

Peterson summed up by saying that the commissioners have already been talking about this issue and need to take a look at 'the tools available to have a follow-up discussion.'

The commissioners need to develop a 'better understanding of the tree canopy, how to manage the various ways of clear cutting, how to protect the riparian areas and how to fund some of this,' in addition to mitigation and enforcement issues, she said.

Peterson concluded the meeting, saying, 'We have to have a task force who can focus on the outcome. [The task force] has to be given a narrowly defined pathway. [So we have to figure out] how to give a mission to this task force to let them have success' in a timely manner.

Urban Green comments

After the meeting, Shawn commented on the remarks made by the district forest ranger.

'We knew about [the state ordinance] and it is not a problem. We built all that into the [proposed tree-cutting] ordinance. It is about more than just clear cutting,' she said.

She also noted that the Complete Communities group had taken the state ordinance into account, so Urban Green capitalized on that research.

'We're glad we had an opportunity to explain ourselves to the county commissioners. They are keenly aware of the problem,' Janger said.

The idea of a tree-cutting ordinance 'has been around a long time,' but little has been done about it, he noted.

Janger added, 'We are concerned - the [urban tree] canopy is shrinking. We have to act now. A huge number of people is waiting to see what the county is going to do.'