Trust on line for Oregon City street trees, storm recovery
Oregon City's trust in city staff — and citizens — was on the line as elected commissioners discussed whether the city's street-tree canopy will ever recover from February's ice-storm damage.
The conversation about ice damage recalled the irreparable damage caused by city staff to public trees. Mayor Rachel Lyles Smith was among the City Commission members who were reminded last month of the 2019 incident at the Municipal Pool where city officials ordered the removal of a healthy 160-year-old walnut tree just because it had cracked a sidewalk.
Lyles Smith said she was willing to let citizens "off the hook" for storm-damaged trees, but she advocated a higher level of accountability for the city's own workers and contractors.
"I'm not willing to support a citywide exemption of tree removal when we worked hard to get that tree-removal policy in place after the tree that was cut at the pool property," Lyles Smith said. "I'm struggling with this (proposed) wholesale removal of city responsibilities for really large trees that still have to come down."
Former Mayor Doug Neeley, an urban-renewal commissioner and a former member of Oregon City's natural resources and parks advisory committees, said he appreciated how elected officials are demanding accountability for trees. Neeley was disappointed to see that the city hired people to trim trees in front of Barclay Park three times since the ice storm — Neeley called that "excessive" — with the latest trimming on June 3 resulting in a topped public tree that will likely die and have to be replaced.
A former resident of the Barclay area, Neeley said he would trim the suckers off the root stock himself to make sure the trees continue to grow as strong as possible, adding that they're the only habitat he's seen in the area for cedar waxwing birds.
"I'm really disappointed that this was a company the city hired," Neeley said. "It's a great idea for the city to hire an arborist, and the parks department is the worst funded department in city, so the City Commission needs to put a levy on the ballot or go out for bond funds for specific projects."
City staff will not have to document removal of hazardous trees in Waterboard Park, Mountain View Cemetery and Singer Creek Park. Commissioners agreed June 16 that these three areas have a large number of trees that were damaged by the ice storm, and it would be too onerous for the city to obtain permits for removing them all.
City commissioners referred several times to current code allowing citizens to remove large street trees by getting an arborist to classify the trees as "hazardous." Elected city officials said they never envisioned arborists being able to claim a tree is hazardous, and at the same time provide a bid for payment from adjacent homeowners to remove the trees, referring to a recent incident on Washington Street.
Oregon City staff originally drafted language that emphasized a "free for all" through October, allowing property owners to cut down healthy street trees with no consequences simply by claiming trees in front of their properties were damaged by the ice storm.
"Even if you cut a tree this summer, we're on an honor system that it was an ice-storm-damaged tree," Lyles Smith said.
City Commission directed staff to change the wording of notices being sent to property owners to emphasize that citizens can be first in line for free replacement trees if they report ice-storm damage. As part of a $144,900 contract with the city, Friends of Trees will plant 400-415 street and yard trees in neighborhoods in the 2021-2023 planting seasons. Citizens will have to check a box certifying that their trees were indeed damaged by the ice storm.
Commissioner Rocky Smith said that "based on the past track record," he didn't trust staff to make the corrections in time for the July water bill. City staff came back to commissioners on July 7 with the revised draft letter to be sent to citizens in August, and city commissioners approved the letter with a few minor alterations.
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