Just as everyone becomes a liberal when Walmart announces a new store in their neighborhood, it turns out everyone becomes a libertarian when dealing with dead trees.
Or maybe it’s just me.
As many of you know from past posts, three years ago my wife and I built our dream house. (If you saw it you’d immediately note that our dreams are relatively modest.) During the building process, our builder recommended removing several trees for aesthetic reasons. We vetoed all of his recommendations, because we like that the house feels like it’s in the middle of a forest despite being in the middle of a major metropolitan city.
Last spring we began to have arborists show up at our door in the early evenings. They were passing by, they said, and wanted to know if we knew that the two large fir trees in our front yard were dead. They needed to be taken down; would we like a quote? At first I dismissed these as the landscaping version of the Kirby vacuum salesman, but over the period of three months we had five separate arborists stop by – one of them several times. Even then, it was well off of my stack of Urgent Things to Think About until our next-door neighbor brought it up. He referred to trees like ours as “widow makers,” and pointed out that because of their size if they fell they might just as easily land on his house as ours. Our other immediate neighbors concurred, and so we agreed to take them down.
We took quotes from the man who had showed up repeatedly, as well as a contractor our builder recommended. The cost for removing two large firs in the middle of a metropolitan area is, perhaps not surprisingly, pretty substantial. Interestingly, both quotes came back with identical pricing, and we went with the guy who had been so proactive to warn us about the dangers. Two weeks and four figures later, all that remained were the stumps, and we went back to our lives.
And then things began to get crazy.
I was working from home last August when I glanced out my front window and noticed a man walking through our front yard, taking measurements. I went out and introduced myself; the man turned out to be an Urban Forestry Inspector from the City of Portland’s Parks and Recreation Department. He was there, he said, to investigate illegal tree removal on my part.
“Did you obtain authorization from the city to remove these trees?” he asked, pointing at the stumps. I confessed that not only had I not done so, I hadn’t been aware that I would have been required to do so. He let me know in no uncertain terms that he was sure that I had known, and just chose to flaunt my disregard for procedures.
I mentioned that I thought it odd that the city would not do tree compliance through the arborists, since they need to be licensed and therefore presumably do know what the regulations are. Neither of the people we got quotes from once mentioned the need to get a permit. Sure, I was told, they should know the city tree ordinances, but I was the one that was required to know them.
“Besides, I can’t just take your word for it that they were dead. Apparently other people thought they were just fine.”
Note: Here is a picture of the very stump he was looking at when he said this:
The tree inspector explained that the only reason he was out here at all was that someone had sent a letter complaining to the city. It was anonymously sent, three pages long, and very, very angry.
(This isn’t entirely surprising. Now that we live here, we get along with most of our neighbors. However, our builder spent eight months building the house next door to ours right before he broke ground on our lot, and immediately after we moved in our other next-door neighbors hired him to do an extensive remodel to their house. Which means that for about two years straight our neighborhood was a noisy, crowded, dusty place to live. Because of this a lot of people were pissed at us long before they met us. In fact, one evening after the house had just been framed we drove over with the kids to walk through it. Someone from the neighborhood had let us know the degree to which we were not welcome by taking a very large dump in the center of the third floor for us to find.)
The inspector let me know I was looking at a fine. When I asked how much, he said his best guess was between two and three thousand dollars.
“Three thousand dollars in fines for removing two dead trees?!”
“Actually, that’s per tree – so you’re actually looking at quite a bit more.”
I asked if there was anything I could do to mitigate the fines. He said that they would send me a formal notice and that I would have a period of time to respond. If I could show that other people besides myself thought the tree was dead, give the names of the contractors who did not let me know I needed a permit, and was willing to plant two trees to replace the ones I had cut down, he was pretty sure we could get out of the fines. I gathered almost all of the information over the next few weeks, but the notice from the city never came and it fell of my radar. Since the trees were obviously dead, I figured, the city had moved on to bigger things.
I finally got the notice two months ago. I called the inspector to let him know I would forward all of the info we discussed over the summer. He let me know that since our initial talk he’d gone on to Google Earth and found a picture taken of my property when the trees were still there; they were indeed dead, he now knew. However, the fines were still applicable because even though the city would have granted a permit had I asked, I didn’t ask. But if I mailed in everything for his records and planted new trees, he was sure the fines would be waived. And so I sent in the information, along with a written request to get the specifications of what the city would find acceptable for the replacement (species, size, placement, etc.). Two weeks ago he said he had not received my documentation and request, so I resent them. They now have the information and have forwarded me the new tree specifications, which read like a Kafka novel.
First of all, the new trees cannot go where the old ones were, because those were within five feet of the road and the city does not allow trees to be within five feet of the road. Yes, that’s right: the trees he is angry I removed without permission were in a place the city does not allow trees to be.
The trees need to be one of several species that are between 50 and 100 feet tall, and must be – I s**t you not – fully mature at the time of installation. Further, they each need to be at least twenty feet from any other tree. Because of the yard layout and existing trees, we cannot put in any trees that will be 20 feet from other trees unless we remove some existing trees first – which, as I now know, I will need a permit in order to do.
And of course, this kicker: once the trees are in place and the city gives its final approval, it reserves the right to still fine me all of the money it was going to fine me in the first place.
This weekend we hired an arborist to come out and review the options. According to him, if he plants the species of tree the inspector is insisting upon in the area we’re being told to do so, the trees will either not survive or their roots will choke out the existing trees and may even eventually damage the street. He suggested a few other species better suited for the space requirements. I forwarded these concerns and recommendations to the city inspector. He doesn’t really care what the arborist says; we need to do it his way.
A review of city code has revealed that almost none of this is per written regulation. Portland ordinance only allows for fines of $1,000 per tree, and the species the inspector insists we use are specifically cited as recommendations; there actually is no requirement for species when replacing trees at the city’s demand. Also, written regulations state that replacement trees can go anywhere on my property, not just a small area where the inspector demands they be put.
And the irony here is that I actually want to plant trees. In Portland, trees have greater value than simply looking pretty. With our high levels of rain, we need them to they anchor the actual Earth our homes are built on. If you take away too many trees, it leaves the remaining ones highly vulnerable to being blown over in a storm. And besides, they do look pretty, damn it!
I have no idea exactly how this is all going to play out, but I do know this: by the time this is over, I am going to have spent a lot of time and money for taking down two dead trees that were in a place the city didn’t want them to begin with.
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