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Controversial site of housing development has diseased trees, possible pollution

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Community members are fighting to save Shaull Woods — the largest strand of Douglas Fir trees in Gresham — from being paved by a developer.

Twice a day Cindy takes her two dogs on a walk through the woods bordering her backyard.

She loves to stroll underneath the towering Douglas fir trees near Southwest Community Park — the largest strand within Gresham city limits. It is a way to experience nature, and to stay connected with fellow neighbors enjoying the sunshine. She describes the woods as a "hidden gem" within the city.

In 2019, neighbors learned the natural area had been gobbled up by a developer. The woods were in danger of being paved over.

"When you take this down and put in cement, you can never get that nature back," Cindy said. "I gave up hope, I thought we didn't stand a chance to save this place."

Park lovers across Gresham called out for the city to purchase the dense forest doomed by development. It all came to a head Sunday, May 9, as community members, elected officials, and wildlife experts rallied to save Shaull Woods. It felt like more like a festival — with picnics and a live concert from The Ten Spiders blues-jazz band. The celebration marked what those in attendance felt was a "save the trees" movement gaining momentum across the city. It appears there is a route forward to buying back and saving the woods, despite new concerns recently coming to light.

"Hope is back," Cindy said with a smile.

It has been a controversial and complicated saga for the 7.82 acres of forested property proposed for development off Powell Boulevard. A new report unearthed more problems with the site than previously known.

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - The City of Gresham found household debris and possible environmental hazards that could cost as much as $902,000 to remove from the 7.82 acres.

A 15-page "Due Diligence" report issued by the city of Gresham found that some of the fir trees on the property are diseased and will have to be removed. And, the inspection found debris and potentially toxic waste that could cost as much as $902,000 to remove and remediate.

The property, at 3535 W. Powell Blvd., was owned by Helen Shaull until her 2019 death. It was sold to Bend-based developer SGS LLC, who had plans to build 30 homes on the site.

But news of the proposed development caused an uproar as many folks said the densely-forested property adjacent to the Fairview Creek Headwaters wetlands should be purchased and preserved as a park. The Headwaters plan would cut down the more than 250 mature fir trees adjacent to the protected wetlands, potentially damage wildlife habitat and possibly destroy Indigenous artifacts said to be on the site.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Gresham Council President Eddy Morales said he believes council will vote in favor of purchasing the 7.82-acre site.

Council President Eddy Morales joined the efforts to protect the woods because of a flood of emails, letters and testimonials objecting to the development received by the city.

"It is because of you all this effort is getting so much attention," Morales said. "I believe the rest of the council will vote unanimously in support of purchasing these woods."

The possibility of Gresham acquiring the land for a park became an option because the city is getting $5.4 million from a 2019 Metro Parks and Nature Bond, part of which could be spent to acquire the 7.82 acre Headwaters property.

Leaders in Salem have also gathered state dollars for the purchase. Sen. Chris Gorsek, D-Gresham, has secured $500,000 for the effort; while Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham, has earmarked an additional $200,000.

For Gorsek it was an easy decision.

"This grove of trees is something I have been taking joy in while driving and living by," Gorsek said.

Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick has been drawn to the project because of the community-led efforts to save the greenspace. It reminds her of why she got into politics two decades ago — a grassroots and successful campaign to save Sunshine Butte, just south of Hogan Butte and Persimmon Country Club.

"You are the driving force," Craddick said. "Without your advocacy this would not be happening."

In April, the city asked residents to rank 10 potential local nature park projects worth $13 million where the $5.4 million of Metro funds could be used.

About 880 surveys were returned. Results of that survey scheduled to be revealed and discussed at the Tuesday, May 11, Gresham City Council meeting. All the park projects have their supporters, but the available funds won't pay for all the projects.

The Due Diligence report notes that the acquisition of the Headwaters property "is heavily supported by the community."

Adjacent to the property to the north is Southwest Community Park, to the east Fairview Creek Headwaters and single-family homes border the property to the west. The city was interested in buying the property, but was unable to strike a deal.

The city approved the Headwaters development and as part of the deal, SGS said it would give 3.5 acres of flood plain, wetlands and buffer area to the city to be protected.

Due diligence started in mid-April, when city staff was able to get on the property to assess the health of the trees, the condition of the dozen structures and other elements of the Headwaters site.

COURTESY MAP CITY OF GRESHAM - Between 29 and 189 trees will have to be removed from the site if it is not used for homes. The trees are infested with a root disease that makes them topple easily.

The city found that trees along the western portion of the Shaull property are infected with a disease called Laminated Root Rot. Trees with this disease can topple over easily in a wind, causing a public safety hazard. The city has already removed 14 diseased trees to keep people safe.

Between 20 and 189 more trees should be removed, the report said, depending on the condition of the roots of the first 20 trees to be taken down.

In addition, there is evidence of potentially toxic waste on the property and a "significant amount" of household garbage, discarded appliances and junk from past farming activities all through the forested portion of the site. Much of it is hidden under a tangle of blackberry vines.

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - The City of Gresham does not yet know the extent of possible contamination on the property.

Nearly all 12 structures on the property are filled with the Shaull family's old belongings mixed with other trash and debris.

"Presence of an above-ground fueling tank, an abandoned vehicle, chemical and oil drums, and smaller containers of pesticides, varnishes, and other chemicals were noted in and near structures and scattered across the forest floor," the report said.

The clean up of all this could cost between $561,000 and $902,000 and could take six months to finish.

Although the developer paid around $1 million for the site last year, he's asking $2.5 million for it now.

"While this amount reflects a higher cost per acre than other city land acquisitions for natural resource protection purposes, this property is unique and provides values for the adjacent SW Community Park site that are difficult to quantify," the city report said.

But the report also said these new findings of tree disease and site cleanup would have to be considered in the price of any possible city purchase of the land.


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