Council review of Lake Oswego's Tree Code sparks debate
Despite some concerns about the number of trees being cut down by developers, Lake Oswego's revised Tree Code seems to be having the intended effect on the types of tree-removal permits being submitted to the City.
That's the message Planning Manager Jessica Numanoglu brought to the City Council last week, when officials took a look at the first year under the new code to see if its goals are being met.
When Lake Oswego adopted the revised code last summer following a long and tumultuous public committee process, the desire was to find ways to reduce the complexity of the tree-removal process while not endangering the city's overall tree canopy, and Numanoglu said that has happened.
"There's been a pretty dramatic increase in Type I permits," Numanoglu told the council, "and also an increase in dead-tree permits over the last year. But Type II permits have actually decreased slightly, and hazard, invasive and protection permits have increased moderately."
Type I permits are the most simple to request (described by Numanoglu as "over-the-counter") and are used for removing individual trees from developed single-family properties. One of the foremost changes to the Tree Code was to raise the maximum size of a tree that could be removed using a Type 1 permit, from 5-10 inches in diameter to 6-15 inches. (Trees smaller than the minimum diameter are not regulated by the Tree Code.)
Raising the threshold allowed many more trees to qualify for Type I permits, Numanoglu said, which likely led to the rise in Type I applications. The increased use of Type I met the City's goal of decreasing the amount of paperwork and hassle that individual homeowners would have to navigate before they could remove a tree, she said.
The rise in dead-tree permits was also expected, Numanoglu said, because the new code expanded the criteria to include trees that are not yet dead but "in an irreversible state of decline." Under the old code, the owner of a dying tree would either need to wait for it to die completely or try to get it removed using a different and more complicated type of permit.
"We've received a lot of positive feedback from both residents and arborists, because it has decreased the regulatory burden on those property owners," Numanoglu said.
The changes to hazard-tree permits are also working as intended, she said. The criteria was expanded to include trees interfering with sewer pipes, and the evaluation process was changed in order to prevent abuse of the permit.
Sewer interference situations are rare, Numanoglu said, but in the past year, the City has received positive feedback from applicants in the few cases where they came up.
When it comes to the revised guidelines for Type II permits, however, there are still some lingering concerns about development.
Type II permits are used for trees larger than 15 inches in diameter that do not qualify for another type of permit. The ad-hoc Tree Code Committee struggled with revising the language for the category, Numanoglu said, because it functions as something of a catch-all, making it difficult to come up with a perfect criteria that will work in all situations.
Developers most often use Type II permits for tree removal, so those permits tended to be at the center of the committee's debate. The new Type II guidelines were intended to "provide more predictability," Numanoglu said, while still
retaining a degree of subjectivity.
"The main tension of this criterion is when the tree removal is for development purposes," she said. "The Tree Code is not, and has never been, set up to prevent development that is allowed by the code."
The results from the past year show that a large majority of Type II permits were issued to single-family properties — consistent with the previous year — but the proportion of Type II permits issued to developers increased.
Developers also tended to remove more trees per permit, and as a result the total number of trees removed by developers using Type II permits in 2016 was higher than the number removed by homeowners using Type II — a reversal from the previous year.
And that prompted a spirited council discussion.
Councilor Theresa Kohlhoff questioned whether the code was doing enough to preserve neighborhood character when older trees are removed, particularly when it comes to mitigation efforts. Replacing 100-year-old Douglas fir trees with new maple trees isn't a fair trade, she said.
"The problem remains — the impact of development on treed lots was not dealt with," Kohlhoff told The Review. "Consequently, what we're facing right now in certain neighborhoods is (situations) where, if development in the footprint they have can't take place without taking out trees, they take out the trees."
At one point, Kohlhoff asked about the feasibility of incorporating the Tree Code into the City's Development Code as a way to increase preservation. Other councilors pushed back against that idea, however, citing similar discussions that had already been held during the Tree Code Committee process. But there was a consensus that the issue of development remained a lingering concern, and that it needed to be addressed.
"A lot of what we're thinking here was highly discussed during the nine months (of Tree Code Committee meetings)," Councilor Skip O'Neill said. "What came back was that we cannot use the Tree Code as a tool for development. If
we want smaller homes, that's a discussion we need to have."
The council opted to add a discussion about the Development Code — and possible tree-protection measures — to the agenda for its 2018 goal-setting retreat, which will take place in January. But Kohlhoff told The Review she intends to keep applying pressure about the issues of development and tree removal before then.
And she reiterated her call for the Tree Code to be incorporated into the overall Development Code.
"People seem pretty OK with the single-family aspect," she told The Review, "but the responses that have come back have been directed at the development part, the loss of Doug firs."
Words of caution
There is one important caveat to all of the data discussed last week, Numanoglu said: The past year alone is insufficient to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the Tree Code — particularly because there may have been several applicants who were waiting for the new code to take effect before submitting their removal applications.
"We can't really derive any trends at this point," she said. "We don't have enough years of data to do that. There's a number of factors that could have contributed to the rise in tree-cutting permits."
In another example, the overall number of permits issued rose from around 1,000 to around 1,500, but as O'Neill pointed out, last year also saw several significant weather events that likely damaged trees and contributed to that total.
Tuesday's meeting was a study session, so the council didn't take any direct action. But the group did seem to support one minor change suggested by Numanoglu and other City staff: an expansion of the list of allowable species of trees that can be planted as mitigation for tree removal.
Lake Oswego's list includes only 20, and staff recommended expanding it to match Oregon State University's "native and naturalized trees" list, which includes 49 species.
"I think we've received the most complaints about this, because the homeowners come in and they're like, 'Are you kidding me? None of these are really suited for my site,'" Numanoglu said. "And I would say a good portion of them just choose Pacific Dogwood, and that wasn't really the intent. We want to maintain a variety of species."