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Citizen's View: Imagine a Tree Code that empowers residents, developers and city officials

Lake Oswego takes pride in its forested character, displaying “Tree City USA” on its signs and stating that the purpose of its Tree Code is “to preserve the wooded character of the City of Lake Oswego and to protect trees as a natural resource of the city.”

Many people live in LO because of its Urban Community Forest. Indeed, trees promote quality of life, property values, mental and physical health, pleasant temperatures, wind moderation, reduced heating and cooling costs, groundwater and erosion control, and wildlife.

Present practice conflicts with the city’s moniker and purpose, however.

Majestic Douglas fir and other trees of First Addition and Forest Hills neighborhoods are being cut down at a rate that has alarmed people living in these neighborhoods. While redevelopment and hazard elimination are appropriate reasons for tree cuts, present trends will transform these and other neighborhoods into nondescript collections of houses denuded of trees, putting downward pressure on property values and quality of life.

The city’s interpretation of its Tree Code brings about the loss of trees. Any plan meeting the lot coverage and setback requirements of the city’s Development Code demonstrates, in the city’s interpretation, that “no reasonable alternative exists to allow the property to be used as permitted in the zone.” The interpretation allows the city to permit redevelopment plans that reduce tree counts on lots by 30-70 percent. But common sense and example structures designed and built around existing trees show that reasonable alternatives do in fact exist.

Moreover, forest replenishment is inadequate because of ineffective provisions in city code. The city may accept payment in lieu of replanting. Dead, hazard or invasive trees that contribute to the forest typically need not be replaced. Planted short-stature trees like vine maple cannot contribute meaningfully to the future forest canopy like the removed stately trees they “replace.” Poor stewardship is squandering the forest treasure bequeathed to us.

Present practice also creates ill will and political peril. Time-consuming tree cut applications upset land owners and burden taxpayers. Residents interested in forest preservation and replenishment are irked. City councilors struggle with a political reality in which both sides are upset.

Subjective features in the Tree Code are the reason for the present situation. Criteria like “significant negative impact on the character, aesthetics or property values of the neighborhood” are ambiguous and yield time-consuming, expensive, upsetting and politically treacherous administration.

Instead of the present disappointing subjective code experience, let us imagine a future Tree Code that objectively empowers residents, developers and the city to preserve and replenish our urban forest and redevolop housing through community collaboration, while also providing for individual property rights and streamlining administration.

This vision is possible, I believe, and I will elaborate in a Citizen’s View in October.

Charles Oppenheimer is a resident of Lake Oswego.