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Tree committee sends revised code to council

'Minority committee' will also submit a report, saying the proposed changes are still too burdensome


BUCKLake Oswego’s Tree Code Committee met for its final session this week, completing what ultimately became a nine-month review process aimed at making the regulations less burdensome to homeowners.

But the three-hour discussion on Monday evening made it clear that while the proposed changes may have the broad support of the committee, there are still plenty of dissenting opinions.

“This isn’t exactly what I would’ve liked, but it’s what our committee did together,” Chairman Mike Buck told the group. “So I’m really proud of it.”

The proposed changes, which were publicly unveiled at an open house in late April, affect nearly every type of tree removal in the city to some degree. Public reaction to the new code has been mixed, both at the open house and in online comments sent to City officials in the following weeks.

Those comments were collected and reviewed by the committee at the start of Monday’s meeting.

Both online and at the open house, a number of people expressed concern that the new code was still too restrictive on homeowners. But several others raised the opposite issue, arguing that the new rules don’t do enough to protect Lake Oswego’s extensive tree canopy. The disagreement highlights a core philosophical difference in Lake Oswego about property ownership and the role of cities and neighborhoods in managing trees.

“Is it just their (property), or is it part of a whole? People come to different conclusions based on how they feel connected to the urban forest with their property,” Buck told The Review on Monday. “It’s a balance — trying to get a balanced view. I think we worked really hard to get the package we have.”

A few commenters also criticized the proposed Tree Code as too complicated, although one of those commenters, Lake Oswego resident Charles Oppenheimer, acknowledged that the changes he hoped to see — such as an objective minimum density level to maintain the tree canopy — are simple but too broad to fit in the scope of what the City Council asked the committee to do.

“The overarching goals, such as preserving and maintaining the forest, minimizing the regulatory burden on landowners and reducing City administration, are right on target in my opinion,” he told The Review. “But the council (told) the committee that the code amendments should be small, (and) I don’t think anyone really knows what that means. Some rather large and sweeping changes would really benefit all three of those overarching goals.”

Every proposed change to the Tree Code required the support of at least two-thirds of the attending membership, which initially consisted of 33 people. That number decreased over time, though — something that committee member Paul Lyons attributed to some of the members walking out rather than compromising.

Still, at least 22 members attended the final meeting.

“There certainly are some minority opinions, but we have to have a two-thirds vote to recommend anything,” committee member Shelly Lorenzen told The Review last week. “And we have gotten that vote on everything that’s included in the proposed revisions.”

At the same time, seven committee members have formed what they refer to as a “minority committee” and are preparing an alternative report. According to the minority committee, the council’s directive was clear: Make the tree code less burdensome to homeowners. But a majority of the people on the main committee didn’t follow that directive, minority committee member Tracy Marx said.

“Very early on, we realized that a lot of people (in the overall committee) have alternative motives to try to circumvent the building code by making the Tree Code more stringent and more difficult,” Marx told The Review. “As time went on, we were outvoted over and over again, and there were many heated discussions, and we just decided that we would write our own report.”

Marx said the minority committee members are sympathetic to concerns about the changing character of Lake Oswego neighborhoods, but that the solution needs to come from changes to the building code rather than using a stringent Tree Code to prevent new development.

“They really didn’t change the Tree Code except make it more difficult to get a significant tree out and change the size a little bit. But you still have to go through pretty much the same process,” she said. “I understand that their whole neighborhood character is changing. But changing the Tree Code to make it more stringent for all of Lake Oswego is not the way to go about it.”

According to Marx, the minority committee’s alternative report calls for a Tree Code amendment that would allow for the removal of up to three trees per year from single-family zoned lots under one acre. An application would still be required so that the City could keep track of removals, and the current Tree Code would still apply for additional tree removals.

“I don’t think that people are all of a sudden going to be taking every single tree down in Lake Oswego. I myself would be protesting in the streets (if that happened),” said Marx. “That’s not at all what we’re saying. We’re just saying let people do what they want on their own property.”

Some members of the full committee expressed concern about the minority committee report at Monday’s meeting, saying that it would give too much weight to the dissenting opinions. Committee member Nicole Seawright argued that it would be misleading to provide a separate report from the minority without also including a report from other members who felt that the new code did not do enough to protect the tree canopy.

“There are pockets within this group that have more extreme views on either side,” she said. “But we all came to the middle.”

One of the most contentious topics throughout the process has been the issue of fines for removal violations. Fines are not determined by the Tree Code and are therefore outside the scope of the committee’s work, but the group created a subcommittee to examine the issue and possibly develop a separate recommendation to be submitted to the council along with the updated Tree Code.

“Generally, I think the Tree Code Committee certainly understands and agrees that to be an effective code, there have to be fees that cover the cost of administering that code, and there need to be penalties that deter and address violations,” Lorenzen told The Review last week, before the meeting. “So the question then is, ‘What should those fees be?’ And that’s what we’re discussing.”

The issue was not brought up at the open house in April, because the subcommittee had not produced a recommendation. But according to City Planning Manager Jessica Numanoglu, information was leaked online that detailed some of the increased fines under discussion, resulting in a large amount of negative feedback. The committee received more online comments about the fines than any other topic, and nearly all of them criticized the leaked numbers as excessively punitive.

At Monday’s meeting, Buck voiced concern that the negative reaction to increased fines could drown out discussion about the actual proposed code amendments, and he urged the committee members to drop the issue. Numanoglu agreed, reiterating that the fines were not on the committee’s official agenda. Ultimately, the members voted to leave the fines issue out of its report.

The committee also updated the proposed code with a few minor language changes recommended by the City’s legal staff. The proposed amendments will now move to a study session with the City Council on June 21, followed by a public hearing in July.

Contact Anthony Macuk at 503-636-1281 ext. 108 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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The City Council is scheduled to hold a study session June 21 on the Tree Code, followed by a public hearing in July. For more information about the code, go to www.ci.oswego.or.us/planning/pp-15-0003-2015-tree-code-review.