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Woodburn takes steps to strengthen city ordinance involving the removal of trees

The city of Woodburn took some steps toward establishing steeper penalties for violators of city laws governing tree removal.

During the July 26 Woodburn City Council meeting, City Attorney Bob Shields and Community Development Director Chris Kerr discussed some of the options the city has in establishing higher fines and giving the city more leverage in enforcing tree ordinances.

The issue arose last month when councilors Sharon Schaub and Mary Beth Cornwell both expressed concerns with the futility of the city codes. Schaub said she had heard from concerned residents in her ward after a couple of trees had been removed from different locations without approval. Her concern was that existing city fines for unlawful tree removal were no deterrent.

Shields said he searched for a similar municipal situation or a template by which to guide strengthening the ordinance, but he couldn't find one.

"Most of the time people follow the ordinances. And sometimes they are constrained by the ordinances and complain to you about having to follow the ordinances, so most people do that, and that's a good thing," Shields said. "There is a very small group of people … who may occasionally intentionally violate the city permit requirement regarding trees."

Shields said he put together a short, straightforward tree ordinance that augments the penalty for people who verifiably violate the ordinance intentionally.

"If we have an intentional violation in a situation where a tree permit is required and someone is just saying, 'well, we're going to tear your permit application in half,' we're not going to do it,'" Shields said. "That's going to be very uncommon. Prosecutors sort of shy away from anything that says intentional, because it's difficult to (prove.)"

Nonetheless, the city believes that the enhanced penalty would be helpful, and the higher fines would register with potential violators. The proposed change is for fines in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $10,000 for intentional violations, rather than the current $750 one.

Shields also advised that the city would carry the onus of proving that the violation was intentional for the higher fines to be leveed.

Kerr concurred that willful dismissive violations are rare. But he also said the higher fines for such violations is a useful tool for the city.

"It's nice to have this extra stick behind it that the ordinance would provide," Kerr told the council.

"It is sort of a heavy lift to say, well, now you need to intentionally prove that with a judge," Kerr added. "One way to do that is when in writing (sometimes) someone comes in for a permit and they get denied. Well, with that denial, I can provide them this exact language; here's an ordinance that allows us to — if we find you willfully cut down that tree — we can fine you up to $10,000. That deterrent component is really critical."

Kerr noted that the city designates every tree that is greater than 24 inches in diameter as a "significant tree." Zoning codes protect such trees, stipulating that they can only be removed under certain circumstances, such as if it is dead, diseased, dying or posing a hazard.

People who want to cut down or remove a tree need to get a permit with the city and provide an arborist's report that the tree fits the criteria for removal. Kerr estimated that the city issues between six to eight tree-removal permits annually.

Kerr said language within the tree ordinance could use some rewording for clarity, and he said he would work with the Woodburn Planning Commission on that.

Cornwell advised that many Woodburn residents are not aware of the ordinances restricting tree removal, and she also was concerned that some do understand the rules but remove trees on the sly on weekends or other times when vigilance may be lax.

Councilor Robert Carney expressed concerns and recommended ordinance wording that prevented people from engaging in activity that would deliberately compromise a tree, thereby rendering it to a condition that meets the criteria for removal.

The council passed a resolution regarding tree laws, which in turn affords city staff plans to continue shaping up the ordinance before bringing it back to the council at a later meeting.

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