UPDATED: This story includes comments from Commissioner Amanda Fritz.
Portland’s ongoing conflict over tree-cutting and infill buzzed through City Hall on Wednesday when four of 12 members of a city advisory group – each with ties to the construction industry – abruptly resigned in protest.
The resignations came just hours after city officials released a memo with recommended policy changes meant to strengthen tree protections. The proposed changes, requested by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, are the first since Eastmoreland neighbors in September successfully rallied against a developer’s plan to ax three giant sequoia trees.
City officials acknowledged that the proposal is in direct response to situations such as Eastmoreland. But some members of Portland’s Tree Code Oversight Advisory Committee said city leaders are overreacting and ignoring their input.
“Any sense of (a) balanced approach to the issues before us seem to have taken a backseat to special interests or citizen pressures surrounding certain select trees,” wrote committee member Phil Damiano, who works for Johnson Air Products, a distributor of HVAC systems.
Damiano said the city’s proposal left him “questioning the value” of the committee. Then he joined others by quitting.
Messages left late Wednesday for Fritz, who oversees Portland Parks & Recreation, were not immediately returned.
Update: In an email sent to committee members after midnight, Fritz said she and Commissioner Dan Saltzman considered proposing a moratorium on development when large trees would be cut down. She also asked parks employees for an alternative to the moratorium — which prompted Wednesday’s proposal.
Fritz told members she hoped to speak with them to clarify and discuss the proposal.
“It is a proposal for discussion and refinement, not a done deal,” Fritz wrote. “There may be an alternative solution, or perhaps consensus will emerge that we should wait to make any amendments or additional Administrative Rules.”
Wednesday’s revolt began when a city employee emailed committee members just after 11 a.m. with a proposal to revise the city’s tree code.
The changes, proposed by city Forester Jen Cairo, all but called on developers to protect trees that are 48 inches in diameter or larger.
Under existing rules, developers building a new house are supposed to try to maintain at least one third of all trees at least 12 inches in diameter. In instances when that doesn’t happen, developers must pay $1,200 for each tree below the one-third minimum.
Under Wednesday’s proposal, those rules would still apply – but costs would increase for a developer who knocks down big trees.
Instead of a flat fee, developers would be required to pay on an inch-for-inch basis when removing a tree at least 48 inches in diameter.
The memo didn’t specify a cost. But the city separately charges a fee of $300 per inch for trees along city streets. If that rate is applied, removing a 48-inch tree would run $14,400.
Beyond higher costs, developers also would be required to post a public notice for at least seven days before removing the tree.
Jessica Fuller, the city employee who sent the memo to committee members, wrote that the proposed changes are a “stop-gap measure” to address situations such as Eastmoreland while a more sweeping review continues.
Fuller wrote that the proposal “does not contradict or diminish” the work of the committee. And she urged members to respond via email because “we will not have a lot of time” at a meeting Monday to discuss the proposal.
The first resignation came about an hour later.
Justin Wood, who represents the Homebuilders Association of Metropolitan Portland, wrote that committee members’ input is requested only “when it is convenient.” Wood also noted that Portland hopes to add 125,000 housing units over 20 years but no one is coming to terms with what that means for tree preservation.
Wood’s father-in-law, Jeff Fish, a homebuilder who also sits on the committee, quit too. He said Fritz was impeding their work.
“I am done with playing this charade that the City of Portland, and their elected leaders, continue to play,” he wrote.
The group’s co-chair, Susan Steward, also quit. Steward is the executive director for Oregon’s Building Owners and Managers Association.
“After committing almost a year to this, it has become apparent my input, as well as the input of others is not valued,” she wrote.
— Brad Schmidt