Friends of Trees nears 50,000th planting, mostly in rights of way

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Julia Jost watches her mom, Kristin, place a Friends of Trees sticker next to a tree they helped plant in Southeast Portland as part of a Saturday volunteer effort. By afternoon, the group of volunteers had planted a free tree in the Josts front yard public right of way.On a recent Saturday morning, which alternated between sunshine and wind-blown rain, Kristin Jost planted a free tree in the front yard of her house on Southeast Brooklyn Street and maybe made a neighborhood friend or two.

Jost and husband Branden Jost have lived in their Powellhurst-Gilbert house for seven years, and they’ve thought about planting a tree or two out front. But both work full-time, and then there are daughters Julia and Katie, 3 1/2 and 2 years old, respectively.

“There’s just no time, and money became a big part of it. Trees aren’t cheap,” Jost says.

In September, a Friends of Trees canvasser knocked on the Josts’ door and offered a deal. The four or five feet of their front yard closest to the street was public right of way, Kristin was told. In most city neighborhoods, that right of way is defined by a planting strip between the street and the sidewalk, but even without a planting strip, the city retains control.

The Josts were told that as part of a citywide initiative to plant trees in the public right of way they could get a free tree and, in January, join a crew of volunteers going house to house planting the free trees in their neighborhood.

Jost also was given information about the value of street trees. First, they absorb stormwater. They also provide needed summer shade and habitat for birds and squirrels. In addition, studies have shown that on streets with big tree canopies overhead, a tunnel effect induces drivers to slow down.

Jost chose a black tupelo in November, when Friends of Trees showed her a list of trees that would thrive in her space. She liked the description of its black bark and orange and red autumn foliage, and the fact that tupelos are drought-resistant, so their tree shouldn’t require too much care and feeding.

On Saturday, Sheila Grayson joined in as well. She’s only been in her house for a year and especially liked the volunteer activity that allowed her to meet more Powellhurst-Gilbert residents. She was a little puzzled that more of her neighbors on Southeast 111th Avenue didn’t take up Friends of Trees on their offer. She said virtually none of the houses on her long street currently had trees near the road, and all her neighbors had been given the same offer as she, but none had said yes.

“I’m getting a $180 free tree,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want to live on a tree-lined street?”

A lot of people, apparently. This fall, the city of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, which contracts with Friends of Trees to do most of the eastside planting in public properties, such as planting strips and in parks, decided to make the free tree offer to residents in Northwest Portland and nearby Goose Hollow. City employees went up and down the streets of those neighborhoods and found about 1,000 homes with planting strips in need of trees.

Each of the homeowners was told they qualified for a free tree, but only 71 took the city up on the deal. Jennifer Karps, Urban Forest Program canopy coordinator for BES, says that property owners are responsible for watering the free trees for up to two years and for occasional pruning after that, and that might be a reason some rejected the offer. In addition, some people worry about sidewalk cracks and raking leaves.

Finding the right tree

Friends of Trees will turn 25 in 2014, and some time this year will plant its 50,000th Portland-area tree. Almost all of those trees are in planting strips. According to Whitney Dorer, the nonprofit’s neighborhood trees manager, her organization actually began not primarily focused on urban foliage, but as a project to inspire community — helping eastside neighbors meet one another and feel safer in their neighborhoods. Trees, she says, were a convenient way to bring people together.

Last year, volunteers contributed more than 35,000 hours to Friends of Trees, mostly to the Saturday tree plantings, which generally see close to 100 volunteers blanketing a neighborhood in groups of seven or eight.

But trees, and educating the public about them, have definitely become the organization’s focus. The wrong trees in planting strips cause problems, Dorer says, sending deep roots that break up sidewalks or growing tall enough to interfere with power lines.

Friends of Trees offers 112 different planting strip species overall. Among the most popular free trees are: Japanese stewartia, with a textured bark and flowers in the spring; Japanese snowbell; and an old-fashioned crab apple. But the width of a planting strip or what’s overhead or the available soil and water means not all planting strip trees belong in all planting strips.

“It’s this huge process of finding what trees are right for you,” Dorer says.

But mostly, Dorer says, her group is constantly educating people to the fact that trees in planting strips or near the street are within the city’s purview. That means if homeowners want to plant trees there, the city has the right to make sure it’s an appropriate tree.

Frequently, she says, people bring home small tree starts from Arbor Day events and don’t think twice before planting them in what could be the wrong place. The Portland Marathon a few years ago gave away saplings, she says, that are going to cause havoc for people who did just that.

Even pruning trees in planting strips is the city’s business, Dorer says. A common problem is homeowners pruning a parking strip tree from the top in hopes of keeping it from growing too tall. But that can shorten a tree’s life and cause weaker branches that are more likely to break off in a windstorm, she says. Homeowners are required to get city approval before pruning planting strip trees, even though most probably don’t, Dorer says.

The city’s Bureau of Environmental Services has been contracting with Friends of Trees to the tune of about $1 million per year for planting 21,000 street trees on the east side over an eight-year period. Citywide, the goal is 83,000 planting strip trees, though most of the city’s west,side streets are harder to plant, according to BES’s Karp. In some cases, she says, the public right of way is not fully developed, and where planting strips do exist, more trees already have been put in.

Dorer says planting strip trees provide a benefit beyond ecology and traffic calming. “It’s a visual reminder to the community that trees are important,” she says. “Private property trees are nice, but only a certain number of people see them or benefit from them.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Fewer than one in 10 homeowners takes up the city on its offer of trees for planting strips. The trees manage stormwater, provide habitat for small animals and, when large enough, help slow down traffic.

New tree rules expand city authority

Even in Portland, trees are controversial. Or maybe, especially in Portland.

For years, city officials and nonprofits such as Friends of Trees have been working to help people understand that the planting strip between the street and the sidewalk in front of their house is actually a public right of way. The trees in those four or five feet of grass, gravel or cement belong to the city — though homeowners can be held responsible for their maintenance.

But distinguishing who is responsible for what will become even more difficult this year when the city begins implementing its new tree code, which stretches public interest to most trees on private property, even those in backyards.

In 2011, Portland City Council approved a new tree code, but money for enforcement was never released, so the new code has never been implemented. But in December, Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who heads the Bureau of Environmental Services, along with commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman, committed to funding enforcement. BES officials say they are shooting for implementation by Jan. 1, 2015.

The new rules give the city the same control over front and backyard trees as the old rules did over trees in planting strips.

“It tries to treat trees on public and private property as similarly as possible,” says Jennifer Karps, Urban Forest Program canopy coordinator for the BES. Virtually all homeowners will need permits to remove trees. And that permit could come with a price.

The rules are complicated. Homeowners who want to cut down trees between 12 and 20 inches in diameter will be required to get a $35 permit and plant a replacement tree. Initially, that will mean a trip to a city office to obtain the permit, though eventually city officials hope the process can be handled online.

Trees larger than 20 inches in diameter also will require a $35 permit and a replacement tree. Also, the larger trees will include a process with public notice and inspectors and the possibility of neighbors contesting the tree removal. Inspectors will have the authority to rule that a homeowner cannot take down a healthy tree — an authority that until now they only had over properties that could be divided for development.

Even pruning large backyard trees will come under city regulation, since improper pruning can kill a tree.

The impetus for the new rules came from concerns about trees being lost to new development within the city. Some developers, Karps says, would purchase property and remove all the trees, then let the property sit idle. Later, when they decided to develop the property, they would skirt rules requiring them to plant new trees to replace old ones. And some developers would simply cut down trees without getting city permits, so nobody would know they needed to be replaced, Karps says.

The new code establishes wider city authority over private property trees, makes clearer which city bureaus are responsible for which trees, and is supposed to streamline the process for getting information and permits about trees.

The positive effects from trees — reduced erosion, cleaner air, stormwater management and animal habitat — are felt throughout a neighborhood, not just by those who live on the property with trees, Karps says.

“If you have a 50-inch white oak in your backyard, what the new code is saying is that tree is a neighborhood asset,” Karp says. “When you remove that 50-inch oak tree you change the character of your neighborhood. What the new code is trying to say is that's a big deal, and we have to have some sort of mitigation.”

The new trees program will take seven full-time employees to administer and perform inspections at an estimated first-year cost of about $750,000 to come from the city's general fund. Eventually, tree permit fees will help pay part of the cost of the program.

Karps says city officials are well aware that the new rules will rub some people the wrong way.

“It's absolutely controversial,” she says. “We're trying to walk the line between not telling people what they can and cannot do on private property, but also recognizing that trees transcend property boundaries with the benefits they provide."

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