Directors: Milwaukie's proposed tree code provides promising path
On June 28, one of us glanced at their car's thermometer outside the North Clackamas Watersheds Council's office on Lake Road in Milwaukie. It read 114 degrees.
That was during last summer's "heat dome."
Just before New Year's Day, OSU professor Chris Daly stated that these events are "expected to become more common." With heat and wildfires fresh in our memory, we all need to make North Clackamas County more livable during heat waves and extreme weather.
The good news is that we have a way to do that, and it will improve our environment at the same time. They're green, they grow when you plant them, and they're called trees. The city of Milwaukie is moving forward with a plan that, if fine-tuned, will be a model for communities in Clackamas County.
Starting Jan. 18, Milwaukie City Council will hold the first of three hearings on its proposed Residential Tree Code. This code will help us adapt to hotter and drier summers, reduce air and water pollution, create habitat for wildlife, and increase property values. With some tweaks, it will also reduce the health burdens on our most vulnerable Milwaukians, and the costs to the public health system that impacts all of us.
The Milwaukie city staff, and Planning Commission should be commended for this work, and the City Council should fix some flaws in the code and fund the work. Other jurisdictions in Clackamas County should use it as a model.
Milwaukie's Comprehensive Plan, adopted last year, calls for a 40% tree canopy across Milwaukie by 2040.
Trees provide many benefits: shade, pulling pollution out of the air before it enters our lungs, habitat for wildlife, holding soil during heavy rains and floods, and intercepting stormwater before it flows, hot and polluted, into salmon-bearing streams.
Trees increase property values; the presence of large trees increased the average sale price of a home by over $8,800 in 2008 ($11,360 today) according to the Pacific Northwest Forestry Research Station. How do we get a leafier, healthier Milwaukie? We protect the trees we already have, and we plant more of them in places that have few trees.
This isn't rocket science. Few people are against more trees. Everyone likes oxygen. The challenge is making it happen.
Most trees in Milwaukie are on private lots. We can't reach the 40% goal by only preserving trees in parks. That's where Milwaukie's Tree Code shines: it acknowledges that trees, like roads and bridges, are our vital infrastructure. The code protects trees on residential lots when there's new development and non-development situations, with common-sense exemptions for diseased and hazard trees, and the like. And it creates a fund for tree planting to get from today's 26% tree canopy to 40% by 2040.
City Council is as supportive of private-property rights as anyone. We recognize that protecting trees will add an additional step for a homeowner who wants to take down more than one tree over 6 inches in diameter at breast-height per year. Developers will need to show that they are preserving existing trees as much as possible first and pay into a fund for tree planting for trees they take down.
But trees have public benefits that we all enjoy, even when they're located on private property. The property-value increase in the Forestry Research study applies to neighbors as well as the owner of the property with trees on it. In other words, your home is worth more and your air is cleaner because your neighbor kept their trees.
The same is true for loss: your property is worth less and your respiratory health takes a hit if your neighbor's tree comes down before its time. The cooling and air pollution absorption of trees occurs at a neighborhood and street level, not lot-by-lot.
Trees along streams prevent flooding, not just to the property owner, but to their downstream neighbors. We're in this together, and the city's proposed tree code helps us solve this problem together.
The Tree Code and subsequent planting plan does several things right:
• It protects mid-size (6 inches in diameter breast-height) trees as well as very large ones. That's essential to making sure we have a multi-age canopy that will grow to replace old large trees as they age and die.
• It considers trees, middle housing, and parking code together. This eliminates the false choice between more trees and more affordable housing, both of which Milwaukie obviously needs. The code creatively requires less pavement, leaving more for housing and the urban forest.
• It requires developers to consider trees early in the development process, keeping established trees in place, rather than removing trees, building the buildings, and then installing small plantings that will take decades to grow tall enough to provide the same community benefit.
• When trees do have to be removed, it allows replacement tree plantings to occur off site, so trees can be planted where they're needed most, not just where the building happens to go up. Branch Out Milwaukie, on the city's website, shows which sections of Milwaukie have the most and the least tree cover. Since tree cover and income tend to go together, this is a great way to make sure that everyone, rich or poor, has access to shade, cleaner air, and healthier habitat.
• It provides common sense exemptions for hazard trees, diseased trees, trees near power lines and so forth.
The proposed Code also needs a few fixes:
• Protect low-income Milwaukians. The proposed code has lower canopy standards for new affordable housing than other housing. This is a mistake. Everyone needs tree cover, and people on limited incomes usually have less access to natural areas and parks (26% less, according to the Trust for Public Land) and more vulnerability to the urban heat island effect, as we saw in June of last summer, a fact confirmed by the EPA. Lower standards for low-income housing will just perpetuate the inequity where wealthy neighbors are well-treed and low-income communities and communities of color are not. We should incentivize affordable housing, but in other ways: reduced fees, height and parking exemptions, but not fewer trees.
• Protect trees and fund planting. The city's fee structure must incentivize keeping existing trees, and as a backup, adequately fund a tree planting program. If fees for tree removal are too low, development will consider removing trees just "the cost of doing business" and the city is likely to not have enough funds to replace them. The city should make sure we protect what we already have and ensure that trees planted to offset those removed survive to maturity.
The Milwaukie City Council can make Milwaukie a leader on tree issues in Clackamas County. They should adopt a strengthened tree code this January. Other cities in the area, and Clackamas County itself, should follow suit.
A while back, mega-billionaire Elon Musk offered a $100 million prize for an invention that removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That invention already exists. It's called a tree. We have them. We just need to keep them and plant more. Let's do it.
Neil Schulman is the executive director of the North Clackamas Watersheds Council, based in Milwaukie. Ted Labbe is the executive director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, which works throughout the metropolitan area.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.