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Oregon City School District violates Oregon City tree code

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Illegal cutting raises awareness of limits for current rules.


State officials this week urged the public to hire a certified arborist before cutting down any tree that looks storm-damaged.

That reminder came too late for a couple of mature birches next to the shuttered Barclay Elementary School, which the Oregon City School District cut down after a windstorm in November. OCSD reminded its groundskeeping staff about the permits necessary to remove street trees after they were found to have removed the two birches in violation of the city code.

PHOTO COURTESY: GOOGLE MAPS - The Oregon City School District violated the city's tree code by cutting down these birch trees (shown in August) without a permit in November.OCSD Facilities Services Supervisor Mike Riseling admitted that the district didn’t hire an arborist before cutting down the birches on Madison Street. Seeing that the trees “looked damaged,” the groundskeeping staff may have been too eager to prevent anyone getting hurt by a fallen branch, Riseling said. Reisling has since talked with the groundskeepers about the rules, which district staff do not consider a formal reprimand.

“They do know now that any trees on the strips that are next to PHOTO BY: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - The trees behind Barclay School were well over 50 feet tall, but the city has no regulations to protect such trees not in the city's right-of-way.the street have to go through a process,” he said.

A few weeks later, the school district decided to cut down additional trees at Barclay on Dec. 15 and hired a contractor without a license to do business in the city. Fred Dye of Fred’s Quality Tree Care is licensed as a construction contractor and is not certified as an arborist. Identified as cottonwoods or alders, the trees that were removed were about 50 feet tall and appeared perfectly healthy. OCSD Director of Operations Wes Rogers said that due to the height of the trees, the district determined that they were a danger to the Barclay gym building. He added that the city does not require an arborist report or a permit to cut down non-street trees.

Rogers said that the school district was notified of the contractor’s violation of the city’s requirement to have an Oregon City business license and has advised Dye to get the required permit. Rogers said that the district hires contractors on the assumption that they have the legal ability to do the contracted work.

The second violation of city code in as many months related to OCSD tree cutting has angered citizens, who rallied at the City Commission meeting on Wednesday night to condemn the actions and press for greater protections of trees.

“As a public agency, the school district has a moral and fiduciary responsibility to play by the rules,” said McLoughlin Neighborhood Association resident Denyse McGriff, who asked city commissioners to direct the Natural Resource Committee take another look at the code to develop a stronger tree ordinance. Several other Oregon City residents spoke on behalf of the illegally cut trees, and Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay called for a meeting with the school district.

Paul Ries, an urban forester who manages the Oregon Department of Forestry's urban and community forests program, recommended that people looks for a tree expert that’s been certified by the International Society of Arboriculture.

"After a storm, people naturally become anxious to have their trees examined so they can prune or take other actions," Ries said. "However, it's often the case that more trees become damaged as a result of improper post-storm activities, than were damaged directly by a storm.”

Pattern of violations

PHOTO BY: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - On Dec. 15, the Oregon City School District hired Fred's Quality Tree Care to cut down some large, healthy trees behind Barclay School.Oregon City received an anonymous complaint about OCSD’s violation of city street-tree code, and the district met with the city to develop a plan for replanting the strip. City Planner Pete Walter said the city's policy is to allow one-to-one tree replacement “if the tree is dead, diseased, dying or hazardous, or if there is a sidewalk mobility hazard caused by tree roots (meaning a sidewalk with a lip that could trip someone up in violation of ADA requirements).”

The district will not be fined for its failure to get a tree-removal permit because district officials met with city staff within two weeks of the complaint and agreed to replant the strip with more trees.

Rogers said that the school district is taking responsibility for not getting a permit by planting more trees than would be required by city code. Rogers promised that the district would plant at least six trees along the right-of-way strip on Madison Street and work with the neighbors on the tree types.

Under current city rules, OC’s Code Enforcement Department has little leeway to regulate the cutting of trees on private properties, which are treated the same as those owned by public agencies like the school district.

If a property owner registers a tree under the city’s Heritage Tree Program, that tree is protected in perpetuity, unless the tree is documented to be in poor health and becoming a hazard. In addition to the city-owned “heritage grove” at Waterboard Park, only four trees have been designated under the heritage-tree program on private properties.

Trees can also be protected if there is a land-use application to the city. Oregon City then works with a developer to mitigate the removal of trees through building placement and to mandate tree replanting if clear-cutting is necessary for building.

The stakes are high for the city’s tree code and OCSD’s tree policies. McGriff said that property owners and developers are aware of Oregon City’s lack of regulations, which has created a citywide issue of clear-cutting before submitting a land-use application, thereby skirting regulations that would have applied to the trees on the proposed development.

OCSD has not submitted a land-use application for Barclay, but the school district has formed a long-range facilities advisory committee to determine the fate of the district’s underused properties. OCSD is in charge of caring for 24 buildings equaling 1.3 million square feet; these buildings span 300 acres with thousands of trees.

As for the violation by OCSD contractor Fred’s Quality Tree Care, the business will likely not be fined by the city. Confronted by the Code Enforcement, Dye told the officer that he didn’t know that he needed a permit and went to City Hall to be able to complete the work at Barclay.

Ries said it is natural for most people to feel nervous around large trees during stormy weather, even when the risk of tree failure is relatively low.

“Winter is the time to remember all of the environmental benefits large trees bring to our cities at other times of the year such as cooling and shading and cleaning up air-borne pollution when it is warm,” Ries said. “Evergreen trees also play huge roles during winter in redirecting stormwater runoff, lessening soil erosion, and reducing the energy consumption needed to warm our homes. It is best to think of managing tree risk rather than eliminating it altogether by removing a large healthy stable tree.”

ISA certified arborist Kris Day, a member of the Portland Tree Code Oversight Advisory Committee and the Urban Forestry Commission, said that the people who are interested in protecting trees find themselves up against the rights of private property owners. However, Day said that “the importance of a warming climate cannot be underscored enough” in terms of trees’ ability to keep the city cooler and improve people’s health.

“With the rebound of the economy, definitely here in Portland we’ve been seeing a lot of attention to the tree code and the very limited protections on private property,” Day said.

Recommending that the city hear from a variety of interests (public agencies, citizens, developers and tree experts), Day said that the Oregon City can expect a long battle ahead in drawing up a meaningful tree code.

“Folks are still able to remove by right up to four larger-than-12-inch trees per year, even with the increased protections in Portland,” she said.

OC’s love of trees

PHOTO BY: JUSTIN SEIBERG - Emily O'Gara and her daughter Lucy stand with their neighbor Baofeng Dong in front of an autumn purple ash tree they just planted in the Barclay Hills Neighborhood, during the Friends of Trees planting event on Dec. 5 in Oregon City.Oregon City Public Works Director John Lewis has a $50,000 annual budget for planting trees. He said on Dec. 16 at the City Commission meeting that it was important for the public to understand that the city does its best to protect and plant trees.

“The city as a whole has had annual disbursement of funding for trees, in many cases heritage trees,” Lewis said.

Registered as a “Tree City USA,” Oregon City might have the political momentum to create better protections for trees.

On Dec. 5, 63 people volunteered to plant 95 trees in the McLoughlin and Barclay Hills neighborhoods. After a potluck at Zion Lutheran Church, planting groups split off to plant about 10 trees each. They planted largely shade and fruit tree, generally only 8 feet tall and 1-to-2-inches in diameter.

“Right now we’re only doing those two neighborhoods, but my hope is that we’ll soon be able to do all of Oregon City’s neighborhoods,” said Ian Bonham, Friends of Trees neighborhood organizer.

Dave Adamshick, spokesman for Friends of Trees, said that the organization works with many municipalities to strengthen tree codes.

In part to celebrate OC's commitment to trees and status as a Tree City USA city, Friends of Trees is still in the planning stages for a Saturday, April 9, Arbor Day planting in Oregon City and should be finalizing the site early in the new year.

Friends of Trees plantings from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. are planned on Feb. 27 in the Rock Creek Headwaters of Damascus, on March 12 in the Rock Creek Watershed of Happy Valley and on March 19 in Happy Valley Park. Learn more about these and other plantings at FriendsofTrees.org or by calling 503-595-0213.

Arbor Day is celebrated throughout the school district in April. The district is again planning to participate with Friends of Trees.