Sit-in calls out urban ‘clear-cutting’ in Camas

Advocates dismayed after city settles with developer, allows more than 70 trees to be felled

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Felled trees pile up at a site off Northwest 43rd Avenue in Camas on Monday, July 15. (Contributed photo courtesy of Camas Tree Protectors)

A small subdivision planned for Camas’ Northwest 43rd Avenue area became ground zero in a battle to protect that city’s urban tree canopy this week after members of Camas Tree Protectors (CTP) organized a sit-in to protest the destruction of more than 70 trees on a lot planned for 12 new single-family homes.

Alicia King is a member of the CTP group, which boasts more than 500 members on its Facebook site.

King said the sit-in, which took place Wednesday evening, July 17, near the development at 2223 N.W. 43rd Ave., came about after group members learned Camas city leaders had signed a private settlement with the developer, Waverly Homes LLC of Vancouver, effectively dismantling a Clark County hearings examiner’s 2018 decision to retain nearly 40 trees on the property.

“It was very upsetting,” King said of the legal settlement between the city and Waverly Homes, “because we lost everything we’d fought for on that property.”

The settlement, reached in late March, was in response to a lawsuit filed by Waverly Homes against the city of Camas after a third-party hearings examiner ruled the developer must take greater steps to preserve a wetlands area and retain more significant trees on the site.

“The property owner was not satisfied with the land-use (ruling) and was alleging multiple claims against the city and seeking damages,” Camas City Administrator Pete Capell told the Post-Record this week.

The city’s own attorney, as well as lawyers with the Washington Cities Insurance Authority, counseled city staff and Mayor Shannon Turk to settle with the developer.

“Rather than spending a lot of staff time and money, we thought we should see if we (couldn’t) reach a settlement,” Capell said.

Under the terms of the settlement, the developer must keep trees located inside a 0.5-acre wetlands area, retain an arborist report on other trees they wish to remove from the property — and compensate the city’s tree fund for any significant trees removed — and plant trees along the property’s Northwest 43rd Avenue boundary that Capell said are “significantly larger” than what would normally be required by city code.

The settlement calls for trees at least 10 feet high and 4 inches in diameter to be planted every 20 feet along the property’s Northwest 43rd Avenue frontage.

The developer will be required to pay up to $15,000 to the city’s tree fund — a pool of money for replacing trees lost in developments by planting new trees in other areas of Camas — with set amounts for each tree removed from the property.

Settlement dismantles earlier ruling

In August 2018, the Waverly Homes application landed in an impartial court hearing before Clark County Hearings Examiner Joe Turner.

At that hearing, the city of Camas’ lead planner, Sarah Fox, showed the developer’s proposal for the 12-lot subdivision, which called for the removal of all but a handful of the 79 trees at the site and halved the existing wetlands, and said city staff believed the developer could retain more trees and better protect the critical wetlands area, per requirements in the city’s code.

Turner agreed.

In the hearings examiner’s final decision, Turner ruled that Waverly Homes needed to modify its development plans to avoid all direct wetlands impacts, revise grading and frontage improvement plans to save 12 trees near Northwest 43rd Avenue and retain 22 existing trees deemed “significant” and in good or fair health by the developer’s arborist.

Capell said the city was satisfied with Turner’s agreement, and King said the tree advocates felt relieved by the decision.

“This is just one little property, but for once we felt like we’d timed it right and we actually organized and showed up and they did something to protect the trees,” King said. “Now, we’ve been told there’s nothing we can do because of the settlement.”

Although the city and tree advocates were pleased with Turner’s decision, the developers were frustrated by the new requirements.

During the August 2018 hearing before Turner, Waverly Homes representative Brett Simpson said the developers had reconfigured the site several times to lessen wetlands impacts and retain trees.

“We’ve decreased lot sizes and … pushed it down as far as we could,” Simpson testified at the August 2018 hearing. “We’ve reduced it as much as we possibly could while still trying to maintain a neighborhood.”

Simpson told Turner that retaining the site’s existing trees was complicated by city requirements to the site that would require extensive grading, filling and construction near the trees’ root zones.

“We’ve done what we could to comply with city code,” Simpson told Turner. “We’re not taking down trees because I want to do it. It costs money to take down trees. I’m fine with leaving the trees and not doing road improvements (along Northwest 43rd Avenue), but I can’t do both.”

Simpson said the construction work would smother and damage tree roots in several areas of the site, threatening the trees’ ability to live after the development was established.

He also argued that taking down the trees in this particular development, which is boxed in by other housing subdivisions, was preferable to removing trees in a less urban environment.

“To me it’s more of a macro issue,” Simpson told Turner. “Urban in-fill is regarded as having much less of an (environmental) impact than urban sprawl.”

In the end, however, Turner ruled the developer could take steps during the construction to protect the root zones for several existing trees.

In his final order, Turner found that “with revised grading and frontage improvement designs, 12 trees near the (Northwest Third Avenue) right of way coud be preserved” and that the developer must retain 22 significant trees on the site and avoid direct wetlands impacts.

Unhappy with Turner’s decision, Waverly Homes — a Vancouver developer that has subdivisions underway throughout Clark County, including the 19-home “Magnolia” development in northwest Washougal — sued the city of Camas for damages.

“I feel like the developers were bullying,” King said. “The way they went about this — suing the city — is just wrong.”

King said the private settlement made many of the tree advocates question if they can have any real impact on their city’s livability.

“There was this tiny window to make some change and we felt like we’d had this small win. We were so excited,” King said. “But now we’ve been told there’s nothing we can do because of the settlement. It’s like, ‘What’s the point?'”

King also worries that the city is settling on other land-use issues and essentially paying money to lawyers that only benefits private developers.

“How much did the city pay to have their lawyers go back and forth on this?” King asked. “And for what? What does the city get out of it?”

Capell said these types of private settlements are rare. In his nearly six years as Camas’ city administrator, he can only remember two other instances when the city settled with a developer over a land-use issue.

The city’s new urban tree ordinance, which requires greater tree preservation efforts on new developments, should help solve some of these disputes before they get to a hearings examiner or lawsuit stage, Capell added.

“The new ordinance spells it out better so we’ll get more consistency,” Capell said.

On Monday, members of the CTP group photographed the first felled trees on the property. King said she and other group members knew the sit-in wouldn’t save the Northwest 43rd Avenue trees, but wanted to draw the public’s attention to similar developments still in the pipeline in Camas.

“Our goals are to stop the clearcutting of trees in Camas and to tell developers we want them to think outside the box,” King said. “Why can’t we be a community that incorporates trees into our landscapes, into our developments? We should be able to do that here.”