Efforts are underway in Camas to preserve the city’s urban trees in the midst of rapid residential and commercial development.
“This was something people cared about, and asked about when we were doing our comprehensive plan update,” Camas Senior Planner Sarah Fox explained of city staff’s two-year project to revamp Camas tree preservation codes.
When city leaders asked Camas residents — at events like Camas Days and in online surveys — what they hoped to see in Camas 20 years in the future, many people said preserving the city’s tree canopy was important to them, Fox said.
“Most people didn’t know that we didn’t have any protections for our trees,” Fox said. “We couldn’t do anything about the areas already being developed, but we could look at (creating a new urban tree program).”
City staff secured a Washington Department of Natural Resources’ Urban and Community Forestry Program grant to pay for consultants from Davey Resource Group, formed an ad hoc committee, and spent nearly two years researching what other cities require from developers and individual property owners when it comes to protecting urban trees.
The city’s current code on tree retention, 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.”
Program would protect trees, set ‘tree unit’ levels for developers
Carter, along with Camas Parks and Recreation Commission member Cassi Marshall, sat on the eight-person ad hoc committee that reviewed the city’s tree codes and researched other methods of retaining and preserving an urban tree canopy.
Both women told Camas planning commissioners that the city also has a problem with people removing trees from public property.
“We have citizens who take down trees in public open spaces to preserve their view,” Carter said at the May 15 public hearing. “They can do it, and we have no restoration means to put (the trees) back. This affects all of us in this community.”
“We have a huge frustration with people taking out trees in our open spaces and green spaces,” she told planning commissioners. “(The city code) has no teeth (for) addressing restoration.”
Marshall also said she supported the proposed Urban Tree Program because it would not only give city leaders “teeth” to prevent and punish the theft of open space trees, but also provide guidance for residential and commercial developers.
“You hear so much when a very visible, obvious development goes in and (takes down trees),” Marshall said. “(The proposed program) would go a long way in … keeping Camas a beautiful, vibrant, green community.”
The new Urban Tree Program being proposed by city staff would require a street tree permit, change the city’s code relating to park and open space trees, add tree preservation language to existing city code and amend the fines and fee schedule for removing trees.
Much of the program takes its cue from the tree preservation efforts in Olympia, Washington, a city that has had an urban tree program in place for more than 20 years.
The ad hoc committee looked at several urban tree programs, and sent Camas staff to Olympia to meet with that city’s planners and urban foresters to better evaluate what did and did not work.
Under the proposed program, the city would — much like Olympia and Vancouver — require developers to meet a “tree unit” threshold based on the size of the project, its usable amount of developable land and the type of existing trees on the site. If developers absolutely could not meet the tree unit requirement, they could opt to instead put money into city tree fund to preserve healthy trees and plant new trees inside city limits.
The program would also allow city leaders to fine people who illegally removed trees from the city’s public open spaces and require them to replace the stolen trees.
People looking to remove street trees from their private property would need to secure a permit first. The city may charge a permit fee and could require property owners to replace the street tree within six months. Under the permit program, “tree topping” or cutting off a tree’s upper branches would be prohibited and considered a form of tree removal.
Hunter Decker, a Clark County forester who also sat on the ad hoc committee, said he supported the urban tree program in Camas, and told the city’s planning commissioners on May 15 that Clark County leaders are considering a similar program to preserve trees in the county’s urban growth boundary areas.
“There is a public outcry for the protection of trees,” Hunter said. “Trees help with aesthetics and beauty. They take up water and provide clean air.”
Commissioners side with developers, send proposal back to city staff
The plan did have some opposition at the May 15 public hearing. The “nay” group consisted mostly of developers and building industry representatives, who said they’d been left out of the planning process, despite the fact that city staff had emailed more than 160 interested stakeholders and met all legal notification requirements for the public hearing.
“It seems this process has overlooked some very important segments of the affected stakeholders; namely those that would bear the financial burden of these regulations,” stated Ryan Makinster, government affairs coordinator for the Building Industry Association of Clark County, in a letter to Camas Community Development Director Phil Bourquin asking that the Camas Planning Commission return the plan to staff for further review before sending to the Camas City Council.
Makinster also spoke to commissioners at the public hearing.
“We do support the plan, but feel it’s too premature to move forward to the city council,” he said. “Maybe slow down its movement. I found out about this yesterday.”
In the end, the Camas Planning Commission voted to return the plan to the city’s planning department and instructed city staff to do more outreach to the development community before coming back to the commissioners.
“It sounds like we need to meet with some of the development community before we decide to move this forward,” Planning Commissioner Jamia Johnson said.
If the commissioners do adopt the plan and forward it to city councilors, the proposal would still need to go through another round of public hearings and could be altered by council members to address concerns from developers or interested citizens.
For more information about the proposed Urban Tree Program, visit ci.camas.wa.us and click “Minutes, Agendas and Videos” link under the “Your Government” tab at the top of the page, then find the May 15, 2018 Camas Planning Commission public hearing link to view attached documents or watch the hearing on video.