Fate of Villa Road oak trees remains unsure
The fate of two stately oak trees on Villa Road is still unclear after the Newberg City Council opted last week to delay a decision while city staff summarizes other potential options.
While most members of the council expressed their desire to save the oaks, they disagreed on whether that trumps the planned public safety and traffic flow upgrades on what city staff believe will be an increasingly critical thoroughfare on the city's north side.
Councilor Patrick Johnson placed it among the hardest decisions to come before the council as he weighed the lifetimes the white oak species needs to grow versus the time, effort and expense already put into the plan.
"Quite honestly, if I had a set of dice, I'd roll 'em, because I think we're just in a horrible position," he said.
The council ended up tabling the issue — technically two resolutions approving the contract for the road work and an easement agreement — for its next meeting, but only after spending about two and a half hours of discussion, presentations and public comments on the topic.
Among residents offering their comments was Leonard Rydell, a local engineer and surveyor as well as president of the Yamhill Watershed Stewardship Fund, who offered his own plan for the road in a PowerPoint presentation.
"We're more than moving cars from one place to another. We've also got to look at other factors and other living things in our community: trees, animals, deer …" he said during his comments. "I know there's solutions. I could come up with solutions; this is not rocket science."
The plan in dispute on Villa Road is meant to improve the roadway's surface and alignment from Haworth Avenue to Park Lane in order to make the road more efficient for cars and trucks and safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.
The improvements would create two travel lanes, bike lanes, curbs and sidewalks, which are standard additions the city is adding to its major thoroughfares, as well as a left-turn lane for northbound traffic to turn on Park Lane.
During her presentation to the council, City Engineer Kaaren Hofmann explained that the road is expected to get busier for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers as time goes on, specifically pointing to revived plans to develop the Springbrook Properties at Villa's northernmost point and George Fox University's plans for tennis courts off Crestview Drive.
Hofmann said the turn lane is specifically meant to ensure that northbound traffic does not come to a standstill whenever someone wants to make a left turn, especially as traffic on the street increases in the future.
Those improvements, however, would extend over ground currently occupied by the white oak trees, one of which a resident estimates is more than two centuries old and could live for another three centuries.
Primarily advocating on behalf of the trees, Rydell critiqued specifics of the planning and methodology of the project while pointing out inconsistencies on other city streets. He argued that wider roads would make drivers go faster, bicyclists would not use the bike lanes and the turn lane would only ease minor delays at peak traffic times.
Generally, he argued that the current, two-lane roadway serves the community's needs well without a turn lane or curbs, and he proposed the city take a different approach to pedestrian and bicycle connectivity, specifically an off-street multi-use path.
Hofmann explained that city staff initially set out to preserve the trees, but found too many constraints to do so while keeping to the city's broader guidelines for collector streets, particularly the narrow band of property available without expensive right-of-way acquisitions as well as the limitations imposed by the railroad trestle and Hess Creek culvert.
"Like I said earlier, the trees are beautiful," Hofmann said. "We can look at alternatives if the council so chooses; that will take time. And for safety purposes, I believe that this design is the best design that we've been able to come up with – again dealing with the entire corridor, not just the trees – for both pedestrians, bicycles and cars, and the existing residents that live in this location."
She added that producing a different option could take six to eight months.
Beyond the practical constraints, Hofmann reminded the council that the city has no tree protection ordinances applicable to this case and the property owner, developer KWDS, could cut down the trees at any time.
"We might try to make a better plan, spend a lot of money developing that plan and everything else, and if the party does the most prudent thing for themselves, or whatever, it would all be for naught and it would be an additional expense to us," Council President Stephen McKinney cautioned.
In a subsequent email chain with the council, city staff and this newspaper, Rydell suggested the city use right-of-way to buy the land around the trees under the pretext of the left-turn lane. McKinney vilified Rydell for the suggestion, denouncing it as "the height of disingenuous behavior."
During a lengthy inquiry by the council, councilor Scott Essin sometimes took a seemingly-accusatorial line of questioning toward Hofmann to determine why the trees were not considered a more important factor, the answer being that the council never implemented tree protections.
He concluded with optimism that there is a way to save the oak trees.
"Our problem isn't that we don't have a solution or we couldn't have a solution or we couldn't save the trees. Our problem is we've never decided we wanted to. We never told you to save the trees," he said.
Councilor Denise Bacon made a motion to not approve the contract so that the city could produce a different plan that would preserve the trees.
"We as the thinking human beings have an obligation to do the right thing for the things that don't have a voice, whether it's the dogs or whether it's the trees or whether it's the children," she said. "That's our responsibility and I think we haven't done our due diligence at this point in time to say that cutting down those trees is the right thing to do."
McKinney and Mike Corey came down on the other side, both particularly stressing the additional costs the city could face by waiting or taking a different approach.
"I don't see how we can save the trees at this point … We're kind of at a point where we need to do this project and I'm stuck," Corey said.
The debate quickly came to a stop when Mayor Bob Andrews proposed tabling the discussion and instructing city staff to review and summarize alternatives by the next meeting, which won unanimous approval from the council.
The council is expected to make a final decision Aug. 7.