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Public weighs in on Tree Code overhaul at Urban Forestry Summit

Input will help city 'fine-tune' regulations that often pit environmental concerns against residents' property rights


SUBMITTED PHOTO - The tree canopy over Lake Oswego covers just over 44 percent of the city, the third-largest in the state. The most common tree species in town: bigleaf maples and Douglas firs.How should Lake Oswego reimagine its controversial Tree Code?

More than 70 community members had their say May 30 at an Urban Forestry Summit, where City Manager Scott Lazenby told the crowd that city leaders weren’t “looking for consensus,” but rather for a variety of input on how best to refine a code that has often pit environmental concerns against private property rights.

Lazenby reminded the crowd at the Adult Community Center that they were a “self-selected group,” and that the casual survey they completed using hand-held clickers would not count as a scientific sampling of community opinion.

But moderators at the summit — including the mayor, city councilors, planning commission members and city staff — did collect questionnaires from the group. All of the feedback will be compiled and posted on the city’s website. And at the close of the summit, Councilor Skip O’Neill encouraged participants to volunteer for an ad hoc committee that will assist the council in formulating a new Tree Code.

“We will probably end up with code tweaks,” O’Neill said, “not radical changes. Think of this as a fine-tuning.”

That fine-tuning took a big step forward in March, when the council passed an amendment to the Tree Code that will enable greater urban forestry management on large land parcels (defined as an acre or more of forested land). Councilors voted to alter the code so that trees are grouped together as “forest management parcels”; owners of such tracts can apply for one of two new forest management permits that make it possible to remove up to six trees per acre per year, or to remove a greater number of trees that are dead, hazardous or invasive.

The question now, city leaders told summit participants, is how to deal with Tree Code regulations and permitting on smaller lots.

City Planning Director Scot Siegel told the group that two focus groups were held in advance of the summit — one for tree professionals and another for developers. Both groups agreed, Siegel said, that “the way the code is set up is almost a disincentive to apply for permits.”

About 1,000 permit requests were filed last year, and senior city planner Jessica Numanoglu said the number of denials was actually relatively small. But she said the city often is told that the process is too cumbersome, too subjective and puts too much emphasis on individual trees.

Nevertheless, Morgan Holen, the city’s contract arborist, said Lake Oswego is ahead of other municipalities in at least one respect.

“While many cities in our area are managing to increase tree canopy cover, Lake Oswego’s Tree Code is more about maintaining existing canopy cover,” she said. The canopy cover over the city is at just over 44 percent, Holen said — the third-largest in the state — with street trees comprising 13 percent of the total. About 25 percent of the city’s trees are one of two native species: bigleaf maple or Douglas fir.

The biggest threat to those trees is the creep of invasive species such as English ivy, which can be found on about 35 percent of the city’s street trees, Holen said. To that end, Holen said forest management priorities should include keeping invasive species in check, along with maintaining existing trees, dealing with diversity of tree ages and making sure the correct species of tree is planted in the correct place.

Todd Prager, a consulting arborist and planner and former Lake Oswego planning commissioner, explained his approach to urban forestry management.”In my view, the most successful communities really spend some time thinking about and answering three basic questions,” said Prager, who worked closely with the city of Tigard to develop its tree program.

The first is a basic assessment of the trees in the city and the development pressures in place, as well as the community response to the city’s management practices, he said. The second is trying to determine exactly what the city wants, whether that’s more shade over streets and lots, less tree removal or a more efficient permitting process. The third question, he said, is how to get there — with well-designed streets and lots, more development regulations or re-prioritized funding.

“Lake Oswego’s already going through this process in a pretty detailed way,” Prager said. But he emphasized that city code can only do so much.

“It is almost impossible to have a healthy forest strictly through the regulatory process,” Prager said.

He outlined Tigard’s approach as a case study, explaining that the city sends a packet of information regarding trees to new property owners, and that city funding is allocated toward tree planting, development review, permitting and enforcement, and education and outreach.

Armed with all of that information, summit participants broke into small groups for what turned into a lively debate. Jack Kast, a fifth-grader at Forest Hills Elementary School, reminded the adults at one table to consider the need to protect wildlife, as well as the role of trees in fighting pollution and acting as sound barriers.

In a group moderated by City Councilor Jeff Gudman, six community members discussed the drawbacks of the code as written, with many characterizing it as burdensome and prohibitive.

Terry Flanagan, an arborist and Lake Oswego resident, described how the process is intimidating to many property owners, and counter-productive. “Right now, the code is focused on tree stems,” Flanagan said. “That doesn’t create a healthy urban forest.”

Dave Marx, who lives in the Palisades neighborhood, was concerned that the code in its current form could be used as a tool for harassment. The group agreed that the permit application process should be put online.

Participants in a group moderated by Councilor Jackie Manz were evenly split, with some emphasizing that the code should be applied evenly citywide and others suggesting a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach.

“The biggest problem is the ambiguity of how the code is applied lot by lot, neighborhood by neighborhood, homeowner versus developer,” said David Rudawtiz, a resident of the First Addition neighborhood.

Many in the group said the code often seemed to favor developers. In response, the group discussed whether the public comment process should be revised to give priority to other neighborhood residents over comments from outside individuals or groups.

Residents who could not attend the summit were also able to participate via an online Open City Hall. Thirteen statements were received by May 29.

A resident of McVey-South Shore who identified herself as “a widow on a fixed income” suggested programs that might provide relief in permit costs. James Meyer, who lives in the Hallinan neighborhood, suggested the city automatically approve permit requests for trees that lower property values.

An unnamed Westlake resident urged the city to proceed with caution, characterizing any overhaul of the Tree Code as “the continuing assault on regulations which protect the environment and quality of life in Lake Oswego.”

Pete Scott of the Palisades neighborhood expressed similar concerns.

“When I drive back into the town, I can feel the significant cooling effect that the trees help maintain here,” Scott wrote. “Please keep this in mind and show some restraint when you decide to make amendments to the code. Trees play a very significant role in what makes Lake Oswego unique and should not simply be considered as an obstacle to construction and development.”

City leaders will continue to collect input as they work to form the ad hoc committee that will review draft Tree Code language. To volunteer for the committee or to provide suggestions and advice, email senior city planner Jessica Numanoglu at jnumanoglu@ci.oswego.or.us.

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