"It's all bullshit." This is a conversation opener that's guaranteed to capture my interest.
Especially when I'm talking with someone about why the City of Salem wants to cut down three large, beautiful Upright European Hornbeam trees on downtown's High Street, just south of the Elsinore Theatre.
About a year ago the Public Works Director, Peter Fernandez, outraged tree lovers (along with lovers of ethical, open government) when he ordered the removal of five beautiful trees adjacent to the downtown U.S. Bank building, ignoring the advice of expert arborists and the City's own Shade Tree Advisory Commitee.
I'm working on an exposé of this shady episode: "Outrage: Salem's U.S. Bank Tree Killings." Subtitle is The true story of how City officials and the bank president cut down five large, healthy, beautiful trees for no good reason, and misled citizens about why they did it.
Sadly, Fernandez and Co. are up to their downtown tree-killing tricks again.
The High Street trees also are being cut down for no good reason. I know this, because just as I did with the U.S. Bank trees, I made a public records request for documents related to the High Street tree removals.
The "It's all bullshit" person told me that it seemed like the trees were healthy and weren't causing problems to the sidewalk.
Yet I knew that the property owners who had requested that the trees be removed, Steve Toney and Steve Ross, had claimed in their application that the trees "were decaying and cracking the sidewalk." Turns out this isn't true.
So why are the three trees going to be killed and replaced with much smaller (3 inch caliper) trees of the same species? I have no idea. There's no good reason to remove the trees. It's all bullshit. Here's proof of the B.S.
I asked an independent arborist, Elwood Newhouse of Elwood's Tree Service, to give me his assessment of the trees. My wife and I have talked with Elwood when we've used his company to deal with trees on our property in rural south Salem.
Elwood went and inspected the High Street trees. He'd already taken a look at them when the City asked him to give a bid for removing them. (Elwood's Tree Service is a City contractor.) These are the email messages I got from Elwood:
The trees are healthy and are causing a very small amount of lift to sidewalk like a lot of other street trees. This problem can easily be fixed by grinding the small lift. Roots can be pruned along with the canopy for better structure. The trees have a great defense system and will tolerate some wounding. There are many things that can be done to preserve these trees. So in a nut shell in my opinion the trees are worth saving.
Okay I'm here again to look at the cavities of concern. The cavities were more than likely caused by sun scalding when some of the lower branches were removed for clearances. The wound wood that is forming around the cavities are a good sign the trees are healthy. Also looking at the last 5 years shoot growth is very consistent. This species of tree compartmentalize the wounds very well. If these cavities warrant the removal of these trees then we should clear cut Bush Park.
Well, maybe that is next up for Public Works Director Fernandez -- clear-cutting Bush Park.
Because he approved removing all three trees, even though the City Shade Tree Advisory Committee recommended saving the middle tree. And the Committee only heard Urban Forester Jan Staszewski's opinion about the trees. No public hearing or outside testimony from expert arborists was taken before Fernandez issued his kill order.
But there's more: this High Street tree removal outrage is even more outrageous.
Staszewski didn't know if small cracks and lifts in the sidewalk were caused by tree roots. However, he claimed there were large pockets of decay in the main limbs and the trunk. As we've seen, Elwood Newhouse disagreed, saying "The trees are healthy."
The tale now turns to another application Toney and Ross had to make in order to have the trees removed -- a Historic Review, because the trees are in the downtown HIstoric District. This was an administrative review by Kimberli Fitzgerald, Senior HIstoric Planner.
In her decision approving the tree removals she said "The street trees are not diseased." Whoa? How could that be, when the Public Works Director said they should be cut down because they're decaying? Instead, Fitzgerald said the applicant notes that the trees are so large, they are affecting the sidewalk.
But Staszewski wasn't sure if the trees were causing any problems to the sidewalk. And Elwood Newhouse said the trees are both healthy and not creating any sidewalk problems requiring their removal. The inescapable conclusion remains: "It's all bullshit."
The only way to cut through the B.S. was to appeal the Historic Review decision. However, I was told by Fitzgerald that I didn't have standing to appeal. The downtown neighborhood association, CAN-DO, did have standing, though.
Which leads me to my final outrage.
I figured that since one of the CAN-DO goals is "Support streetscaping in the neighborhood," the neighborhood association would want to appeal a B.S. tree removal decision by the City of Salem. So I spent a lot of time the past 10 days sending information about the High Street trees to CAN-DO board members. Such as:
Download Background info for CAN-DO Word
I responded to every question they asked. I offered to pay the appeal fee. I said that because I've had a lot of experience with land use appeals, I'd be glad to handle the appeal to the Historic Landmarks Commission if CAN-DO wanted. I filled out the appeal form and wrote a required addendum that outlined the reasons an appeal was being made.
Download Addendum to appeal Word
Because Sarah Owens, a CAN-DO board member, was concerned about whether there were valid grounds for appealing the Historic Review tree removal decision, I asked a knowledgeable land use/environmental law attorney, Sean Malone, to review the decision.
At last night's CAN-DO board meeting I shared Malone's opinion: there were indeed good grounds for appealing the Historic Review decision. I told the board members what they were.
I also summarized the flaws in the Fernandez and Fitzgerald tree removal approvals. I told them that Elwood Newhouse had inspected the trees, finding they were healthy, structurally sound, and not causing any sidewalk problems that required removal.
To me, appealing the Historic Review decision was a no-brainer.
There were no downsides and some appealing upsides: notably, potentially saving the trees. Yes, I told the CAN-DO board, virtually every legal appeal is uncertain. Winning isn't guaranteed.
But if CAN-DO doesn't appeal, the trees will be killed. For no good reason. That is virtually guaranteed, barring a cosmic ray striking the brains of Steve Toney and Steve Ross, somehow altering their desire to have the trees removed.
(Note: these aren't the building owners' trees. They are the public's trees. They are worth tens of thousands of dollars, likely, given their age -- at least 40 years -- and size. Toney and Ross complained that the trees were dropping leaves on their building's awning. Staszewski, in a part of his staff report that I agreed with, clued them in: "The trees produce natural litter; leaves and twigs. Removal of tree debris is a common maintenance practice."]
After I made my appeal request to the CAN-DO neighborhood association board last night, they tabled discussion of this issue. I left the meeting. I wasn't able to be part of the board discussion of the appeal. More than twelve hours later, I haven't heard anything from the CAN-DO chairperson, Rebekah Engle.
The appeal deadline was 5 pm today. I offered to pay for and file the appeal documents. All CAN-DO had to do was agree to appeal, and have Engle sign the forms I'd prepared. I left the completed forms with a board member.
Hopefully the forms will be recycled, instead of thrown away. They sure aren't going to be used to try to save the trees.
It hurts to know that the Upright European Hornbeams will be cut down for no good reason. Heck, I don't even know what the bad reason is. The two decisions by the Public Works Department concluded that the trees are healthy, and they aren't causing significant sidewalk problems.
I'm sad. Also, angry.
I stopped by High Street this afternoon and took some photos of the trees. I sent them a thought message: "I'm sorry you're condemned to die. You're only 40 or so years old. You could live to be 120. You clean the air, beautify the street, keep people cool, and suck up stormwater. Just want you to know I did everything I could to save you."
Sure wish the CAN-DO board had felt the same way.
When I made my pitch to the board for them to appeal the tree removal decision, I told them that I love trees, downtown, and open transparent government. I optimistically assumed that I was speaking to people who shared those passions.
Seems like I wasn't.
Almost certainly the trees are going to die. Like I've said, and Elwood Newhouse confirms, for no good reason.
Shame on you, City of Salem Public Works Department. And shame on the CAN-DO neighborhood association for not appealing this unjust act. Just as with the U.S. Bank trees, you sat on your hands when you should have been signing an appeal form.