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Committee unveils key changes to Lake Oswego's Tree Code

Overhaul is designed to simplify the tree-removal process and expand the criteria for removable trees

REVIEW PHOTO: ANTHONY MACUK - Under proposed changes to Lake Oswego's Tree Code, only one public notice for a Type II tree removal (left) would be required instead of two.Lake Oswego’s ad-hoc Tree Code committee unveiled a set of amendments last week designed to make the City’s tree-removal process easier and more straightforward.

The proposed new rules still face a public comment period and some possible tweaking before the committee delivers its final recommendations to the City Council in late May. The council will then review the amendments before holding a public hearing in July.

But the process that started with an Urban Forestry Summit in May 2015 and continued through months of committee meetings now appears likely to produce a final document that would impact nearly every tree removal in the city.

BUCK“We learned that not every tree in town is the right tree in the right place,” committee chairman Mike Buck told the more than 40 people who gathered at an April 27 Open House for a preview.

The City Council created the 31-member citizen volunteer committee last year in an effort to deal with a much-maligned permitting process that was often described by residents as too cumbersome, too subjective and too focused on individual trees. The objective, the council said, was to find a way to balance community aesthetics and environmental quality with “residents’ desire for less-stringent regulation.”

The committee was scheduled to reach a decision by the end of the year, but that deadline was later extended to June 2016. “When we looked at the problems in a comprehensive way,” Buck said, “we knew we couldn’t do this in three meetings.”

The proposal unveiled last week includes changes to the criteria and procedures for each of the seven types of tree-removal permits now offered by the City: dead trees, hazardous trees, emergency removal, Type I, Type II and major and minor forest management permits. It revises the requirements for mitigation after trees are removed, and proposes two fee increases: from $17 to $25 for permit applications and from $80 to $100 for evaluations.

NUMANOGLUIt also seeks to simplify the entire process by putting more of it online. The committee recommended a “one-stop website” where citizens could find information, submit removal applications and file public comments on applications under active consideration.

Senior planner and project manager Jessica Numanoglu said the City has already begun investigating potential software options for the webpage.

“One of the biggest issues we wanted to solve,” Numanoglu said, “is that (currently), if anyone wants to apply to remove a tree, they have to come to City Hall to do it.”

Among the other changes proposed by the committee:

-- For dead tree permits, the committee clarified the definition of “dead” to include trees in a “progressive and irreversible decline” — a change that would make it easier to obtain removal permits for diseased and partially dead trees. For hazardous tree permits — which pertain to trees that are healthy but still dangerous — the committee added a requirement that a qualified arborist must conduct a risk-assessment evaluation.

-- The committee expanded the criteria for emergency permits, which can be issued retroactively, to include trees that are blocking a utility and trees that are propped up by another structure. Heritage Trees could also qualify for emergency removal permits under the proposed changes; they are excluded in the current code.

-- Type I permits are required for removing trees on properties containing single-family homes in residential neighborhoods. Currently, a tree must be 5-10 inches in diameter to qualify (anything larger would require a Type II permit, and anything smaller would not require any permit), and applicants are limited to two approved removals per year. The committee proposed increasing the standard to 6-12 inches, saying the size of an average tree in Lake Oswego has increased over the years as the trees have aged.

-- The greatest focus was given to Type II permits, which Numanoglu described as “arguably the most burdensome to property owners and the ones we hear the most complaints about.”

Type II permits are required for the removal of any tree that does not meet the criteria for one of the other permits. Unlike the others, Type II permits require a 14-day public comment period (plus a subsequent appeal period) and two posted signs on the property to notify neighbors. Type II permits also require a mitigation plan and an additional fee of $148 per tree on top of the $17 application fee.

For a Type II permit to be granted, the proposed removal must be for landscaping purposes and not solely to improve views; the removal also must have no impact on the character and aesthetic of the surrounding neighborhood. Numanoglu said that last criteria has been the most contentious, because “it’s highly subjective.”

“People complained that it pitted neighbor against neighbor, or neighbors against builders and developers,” Numanoglu said.

The proposed amendments would allow Type II permits to be granted for trees that “have outgrown their landscaping area.” The proposal would also add a definition to the “neighborhood aesthetic” criteria, specifying that a tree is considered to be contributing to the neighborhood character if it is significant, prominent, a visual screen or a street tree.

The new rules would also allow City planners to account for mitigation plans when determining if a tree removal would have a negative impact on soil around it. Under the current code, a Type II tree removal cannot have a negative impact on the surrounding area (such as increased erosion), and staff must make that determination solely based on how the tree removal would impact the soil.

“If someone was going to be putting in a retaining wall, we wouldn’t be able to take that into account before,” said Numanoglu. “This gives us more flexibility.”

The removal process would also be simplified under the proposed amendments. Applicants would only need to post one sign on their property, unless an appeal is filed against the removal; the appeal period would be reduced to seven days; and appeals could only be filed by people who participated in the public comment period. (The public comment period would still be 14 days, and appeals would be able to be filed online.)

-- The final two categories are minor and major forest management permits, which are used for the removal of a large number of invasive or dead trees from a given area. Minor permits are used when the application calls for removing up to six trees per acre, while major permits are used for larger projects.

In both cases, the committee proposed amendments that would allow Historic Landmark property owners to apply. Committee members said that this change is important, because for some landmark properties such as the Oswego Lake Country Club, the historic designation has nothing to do with the trees on the property but still prevents those trees from being removed if necessary.

“It means (historic property owners) are able to properly manage trees without having to come in for a Type II permit every few years,” Numanoglu said.

The committee also suggested multiple changes to the code’s mitigation requirements. Some of the changes would make the rules more stringent — for example, native trees would need to be replaced by other native trees, and two mitigation trees would be required for every one tree removed for development purposes. Offsite mitigation would also no longer be permitted.

On the other hand, mitigation requirements would be decreased if the original trees were removed for thinning or landscaping purposes.

“We’re trying to be reasonable and not make it burdensome for property owners,” Buck said.

Copies of the Tree Code and the proposed amendments are now available on the City’s website at ci.oswego.or.us/planning/pp-15-0003-2015-tree-code-review. Public comments, which are being accepted through May 18, can be delivered directly to Numanoglu via email at jnumanoglu@ci.oswego.or.us; by phone at 503-635-0283; or by regular mail sent to City of Lake Oswego Planning & Building Services Department, 380 A Ave., P.O. Box 369, Lake Oswego, OR 97034.

Contact Anthony Macuk at 503-636-1281 ext. 108 or amacuk@lakeoswegoreview.com.