Camas residents contest 122-home subdivision

Opponents cite destruction of ‘critical’ Oregon white oak trees, concerns over stormwater runoff and traffic safety

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A "proposed development" sign, proposing a subdivision with 122 single-family homes, sits on a 37-acre parcel at 26630 N.E. 28th St., in north Camas, in 2021. (Contributed photo courtesy of the city of Camas)

A proposal that would build 122 single-family homes near Green Mountain near Camas’ northern city border is drawing opposition from several Camas residents, Green Mountain neighbors and local “tree protectors.”

“Citizens in Camas have been telling you for years that we are tired of letting developers ruin our land and environment,” Camas resident Madeline Lyne wrote to city of Camas officials and planning staff on May 2, two days before Camas Hearings Examiner Joe Turner opened a public hearing on the proposed Camas Heights subdivision at 22630 N.E. 28th St. “I am helping to speak up for the trees in Camas and this time specifically for the 10 Oregon White Oak trees, of which Lennar Homes is only willing to save (two). It is no revelation that these trees are on this property, so Lennar should make adjustments and we, or you, the Mayor and City Council who represent us, need to be more adamant about what Camas values and expects from those who come into our home and change the landscape with a new development.”

Lennar Northwest, Inc., a Vancouver development company, has applied for a preliminary plat approval to subdivide a 37-acre parcel bordered by the Green Mountains Estates subdivision in northern Camas into 122 7,200- to 12,000-square-foot lots.

The site, which is currently zoned for single-family residential development, has a few sticking points for the developer — including two wetlands, steep slopes and 10 Oregon white oak (also known as Garry oak) trees.

The state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) weighed in on the developer’s plan to remove all but two of the site’s existing white oaks.

“We are primarily concerned with the impacts of the project on the Oregon white oaks and feel that the plan proposal does not adequately try to avoid and minimize the impacts to these vital species,” DFW habitat biologist Amaia Smith wrote to Camas Planning Manager Robert Maul. “Moreover, the preliminary mitigation plan proposal does not account for all spatial and temporal loss derived from Oregon white oak habitat and will lead to a loss in the wildlife habitat functionality.”

Smith recommended the developers explore alternate designs that would protect “the locally significant Oregon white oaks that are on site, including potential design plans to protect the 43-inch (diameter) oak tree … if feasible,” and “enhance wetland with the removed Oregon white oaks, including vertical and horizontal snags.”

At a public hearing in front of Camas’ contracted hearings examiner on May 4, others spoke in favor of saving more of the white oaks.

Christina Menetti, president of the nonprofit Garry Oak Coalition in Lakewood, Washington, which recently helped protect 90 native white oaks in that city, spoke in opposition of the Camas Heights subdivision during the May 4 hearing.

“This is critically imperiled habitat — that’s the official designation of Garry oak habitat,” Manetti testified during the hearing, saying only 3 percent of the former Garry (or Oregon) white oak habitat that once existed between British Columbia and California still exists. “Every single Garry oak should be preserved at this time. There is no excuse to not preserve them. They are the most important tree genus in terms of habitat and the only native oak in our region. They are a keystone species – more species rely on this tree than any other tree.”

Manetti and others who spoke and wrote in favor of protecting the white oaks pointed out that the trees are extremely slow-growing and that the developer’s plans to replace 80 percent of the established trees on the Camas site with white oak seedlings means it will take another 150 years for those trees to grow to their full size.

“There is no guarantee these seedlings will become fully grown trees,” said James Dunlap, another tree protector from Lakewood. “You will have to wait almost two human lifetimes to see these seedlings grow. If you can keep the Garry oaks, I think a lot of people would be very grateful.”

Though the developer did come up with an alternate design that could have saved more white oaks on the property, Camas planner Madeline Sutherland said the alternative plan would “not provide quality oak habitat due to grading” requirements.

The developer now plans to save two of the Oregon white oaks and will replace the other eight oaks at a 5-1 ratio in a 12,000-foot tract known as “Tract M.”

City staff has asked the developer to investigate how many plantings “Tract M” can accommodate.

“If not all the mitigation plantings can fit within Tract M, then the applicant shall mitigate within the Wetland A and its buffer,” Sutherland’s staff report noted. “If not all mitigation can be accommodated, then the purchase of habitat credits may occur.”

Neighbors worry about stormwater runoff, traffic safety

The white oaks’ preservation was not the only issue Camas residents had with the proposed development during the May 4 hearing. At least two neighbors whose properties sit next to the proposed subdivision worried the development would cause stormwater issues for neighbors and traffic problems for others in the Green Mountain area.

Joe Conn, who lives on a 3.5-acre piece of land on Northeast 28th Street, directly next to the proposed subdivision, testified that he and his wife are concerned about the developer’s plan to build a stormwater retention pond next to their property.

“The overflow water would be on our property and would have a negative impact to us,” Conn said during the May 4 hearing. “They expect the (stormwater) to run onto our property. We already live very close to a wetland and have had to spend thousands of dollars to deal with that. Now, we will have a retention pond directly next to our house. When those retention ponds overflow, where is the city or the developer planning for it to go? We think there should be a report detailing where it will go before it hits our property. … What steps are going to be taken to ensure we don’t have our whole property become a wetland?”

Another neighbor of the property – Tony Valasco – also testified on May 4 that he worried about the developer’s stormwater plans, and noted that other subdivisions in the area have had issues with draining water, with one subdivision having to rip out people’s fences to build a French drainage system to deal with overflowing stormwater.

“I’m not opposed to development, but I don’t think they know what they’re getting themselves into here,” Valasco said.

A third neighbor, Bryan Bolman, said flooding coming off a nearby hillside is so bad, residents in the area are “now forming a class-action lawsuit” against that existing subdivision’s builder.

Conn said existing retention ponds below his property have overflowed twice already this year during heavy rain events.

“Even the ones there today cannot handle the water,” Conn said. “When I talk to the city, they say no one engineers for (100-year flooding events). But when it happens two to three times a year, it’s a serious concern.”

Camas resident Lynne Lyne said she moved to the city two years ago, and has been “having the same conversation with the city” over saving trees and protecting Camas’ natural resources.

“It’s exhausting,” Lyne said. “To me, these water issues are very clear that developers throughout Camas are fighting against nature. … We have the Camas Tree Protectors (group) that care so much and nothing changes. It’s very, very, very frustrating. And I implore the developer to think about what everyone said and do the right thing.”

John Meier, an engineer working for the developer, later said the applicant’s stormwater retention plans addressed some of the residents’ concerns.

“We’re going to be routing water around their houses and around Mr. Conn’s house and discharging to wetlands to the south,” Meier said. “We should be making the situation better. We will have a geotechnical engineer onsite, reviewing our final engineering plans to make sure that, if there are any subsurface flows, that we’re capturing them … to make sure we don’t have water flowing to where we don’t want it to.”

Others who testified in opposition to the subdivision development during the May 4 hearing said they also worried added traffic on Northeast 28th Street would make a road that was, in their opinion, already hazardous, even worse.

“There is a hump in the road, to the east of our driveway, and when you come out of that, you can’t see traffic at a certain point coming up that road,” Conn said. “It’s even worse for the road coming out of that existing subdivision. If you’re in a short vehicle or car, it’s really hard to see cars coming from the west.”

Valasco said he has seen vehicle accidents in the area from what he assumes is a lack of visibility.

“There have been wrecks and people getting T-boned from people coming out of the properties coming from the south side,” Velasco said. “You need grading there so you can actually see from the east.”

Another neighbor, Shannon Crouse, said she also has witnessed accidents on the road that would lead to the proposed development.

“About six months ago, a girl came speeding down (28th Street) and she flipped her car and landed in a neighbor’s yard,” Crouse said. “The officer who interviewed me said people speed down here all the time, coming down at 50, 60 miles per hour. And I never see officers on this road, controlling speeding in any way. This road cannot handle the traffic that’s going to come in. I’m not sure … how we’re going to get around out here.”

The developer’s transportation engineer later testified they had measured the road and found the site distance met the city’s requirements.

“As far as speeding goes,” said transportation engineer Jennifer Danziger, “this is a roadway that has been relatively rural in nature, but is changing dramatically to the west of our site. Ultimately, the city of Camas may be looking at changing the posted speed limits as this area slowly develops … and people may slow down because there’s more activity on the road there.”

Even considering more residential developments planned in the city’s Green Mountain area, Danziger said “there is capacity on the roadways for all of the improvements that are needed.”

Turner is expected to make a decision on the proposed subdivision application by June 1. That decision can be appealed to superior court.

For more information about the project, visit