Emotions ran high at the Camas City Council meeting Monday night, as dozens of Camas residents turned out to decry the “clearcutting” of old-growth urban trees and insist Camas leaders work harder to protect the city’s tree canopy.
“Every single subdivision I’ve seen in the past five years has been clearcut,” Camas resident Geri Rubano said Monday. “It’s devastating and I can’t stand it anymore. … These trees have been here longer than we have and they deserve to live.”
The tree advocates had come to the city council meeting to weigh in on the city’s proposed Urban Tree Program, which would help protect the tree canopy in new Camas developments, but do little to save trees on parcels of land already approved for development or trees located outside street-facing planter strips on residential lots smaller than 24,000 square feet.
“There is room to grow from here,” Camas Senior Planner Sarah Fox, the city staff member who took the lead creating the draft Urban Tree Program, said Tuesday. “We were pretty clear that we weren’t planning to protect trees on individual lots, but on new developments. We were putting in place a good starting point, and I’m hoping they took that away with them last night.”
Preserving Camas’ urban trees is something city staff have been working on for the past two years.
In May, as the draft proposal was making its way through the Camas Planning Commission, Fox explained that the push to revamp Camas’ tree preservation codes was citizen-driven.
“This was something people cared about, and asked about when we were doing our comprehensive plan update,” Fox said. “Most people didn’t know that we didn’t have any protections for our trees. We couldn’t do anything about the areas already being developed, but we could look at (creating a new urban tree program).”
The city’s current tree-related code, which states “to the extent practical, existing healthy, significant trees shall be retained” and “preservation of groups of significant trees, rather than individual trees shall be preferred,” is vague and open to interpretation, which has caused legal problems in the past, Fox said.
The current code doesn’t prohibit people from tearing down existing trees on their own property, require developers to retain a certain number of trees or even adequately protect trees within the city’s open spaces.
“We have a code that says developers have to put in a street tree, but no code that says they have to keep it or replace it if it dies,” Camas City Councilwoman Bonnie Carter pointed out at a May 15 Camas Planning Commission public hearing on the proposed Urban Tree Program. “If my neighbor takes that (street tree) down 15 or 20 years later, that means something to me.”
The new tree ordinance would help the city achieve its comprehensive goal “to protect Camas’ native landscape and mature tree cover;” define a street tree and process for removing and replacing a street tree; penalize those who illegally remove public trees in parks and open spaces; and clarify the tree-protection process in new developments by requiring a minimum of 20 tree units per acre, with more “unit points” given to certain types of trees, including larger, healthier, more established trees.
“This is a new program looking at every aspect of trees in the city,” Fox told city council members.
Several Camas residents who testified at the Monday night public hearing said they worried about developers trying to “get in under the wire” and clearcut urban trees before the proposed ordinance could be approved by council and go into effect.
They also worried that city leaders were not doing enough to protect some of the city’s older, more established evergreens and were allowing developers to replace trees older than 100 years with clusters of young saplings.
Although the ordinance, if approved, would help protect trees on new commercial, industrial and larger residential developments as well as set boundaries for removing and replacing street trees and penalize people removing public trees, it would not prevent an individual property owner on a residential lot smaller than 24,000 feet from removing old-growth trees in their backyard — something many of the residents who spoke Monday night worried about.
Fox said the program is a good jumping-off point, however, and would make it easier for city leaders to implement stricter tree protections in the future.
“I do think we’ve set it up in way that, moving forward, we can make adjustments … and it hopefully would not take two years,” Fox said.
Camas resident Alicia King told councilors she was a part of the city’s Vision 2035 comprehensive planning committee and remembers this issue coming up more than two years ago. King said Monday she was surprised to learn city leaders hadn’t yet moved to protect Camas’ urban trees.
“In two years, there has been so much devastation. I’m hoping this moves quickly because there are trees that need to be saved. We can’t wait,” King said.
King said she recently reached out to Earth Day founder Denis Hayes, a Camas native named a “Hero of the Planet” by Time Magazine in 1999, to get his take on the proposed Urban Tree Program.
Hayes emailed the city council members, urging them to pass the tree-protection ordinance.
“Although I have not been a resident of Camas for some decades, I grew up there and, like a returning salmon, will always view my early habitat as ‘home,'” Hayes stated in his email. “In recent years, the myriad benefits of urban trees for humans and, of course, other living things have been well-documented. Young people who grow up exposed to nature are better students and mature into more successful adults. People recovering from illness or operations do so more rapidly in the presence of trees — even if it is only to view them through a window. Trees enhance property values, provide shade from summer heat, help rain sink into the soil, absorb harmful pollutants and withdraw huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. They provide nesting places for birds and squirrels and habitat for all manner of biodiversity.”
Like many Camasonians, Hayes said he was surprised to learn the green, leafy city of his childhood did not have any tree-protection ordinances in place.
“When I think back to my youth in Camas, trees loom large in my mind. I passed hundreds of trees — some of them magnificent — every single day!” Hayes wrote. “I’ve always assumed that Camas had a strong urban tree ordinance, and I’m startled to learn that the city is only now addressing the issue. I suppose that, when Camas was still small, development pressures on trees were not as powerful as they are in major cities. However, Camas is growing ever-larger, and the time has come to get some protections in place before irreversible losses occur.”
Calling the Urban Tree Program “an important step in the right direction” and “the product of solid research and extensive hearings,” Hayes urged the council members to pass the ordinance.
Leaders from the nonprofit tree advocacy group Friends of Trees also wrote to Camas Mayor Scott Higgins and the city council members urging them to approve the urban tree ordinance.
“Friends of Trees applauds the city’s wisdom in pursuing protection and growth of its urban canopy and natural areas — a strong, healthy urban canopy is good for business, good for livability, good for our health,” wrote Friends of Trees Deputy Director Whitney Dorer and Megan Van de Mark, the group’s neighborhood trees specialist for Southwest Washington. “Unfortunately, urban tree canopies across the country are decreasing at an alarming rate. This decrease in trees contributes to hotter cities and neighborhoods; higher energy costs; increased episodes of ‘heat islands;’ greater health risks; and, overall, fewer trees results in a significant decrease in a city’s livability.”
After some brief discussion and a few questions for staff, city council members voted unanimously to direct city staff to put together an ordinance for their consideration.
Fox said Tuesday she is working with the city attorney to create an ordinance in time for the city council’s Aug. 20 meeting. If approved that night, the ordinance would go into effect five days later.
For more information about the proposed Urban Tree Program, visit ci.camas.wa.us/yourgovernment/minuteagendavideo and click on the “meeting details” link for the Aug. 6 regular Camas City Council meeting, then click on the “AI 18-159” link to the left of the Camas Urban Tree Program public hearing action item.
To read more Post-Record coverage of this issue, visit camaspostrecord.com/news/2018/may/31/camas-moves-to-save-its-trees and camaspostrecord.com/news/2018/jul/12/plan-to-save-camas-canopy-moves-forward.