Losing five large beautiful trees in downtown Salem is bad enough. How this travesty occurred is equally disturbing. The full story remains to be fleshed leafed out.
(The chapters so far are described in previous blog posts, here, here, and here.)
Still, during the past week I've gotten a pretty good feel for how the needless tree-killing came about. One of my reputable sources is my wife, who spoke with a US Bank manager about why the bank wanted the trees to be removed.
She didn't get the name of the manager, who was a man. What we do know, though, is that the reasons this person gave don't jibe with what I've learned from other sources.
My wife, Laurel, was told that a primary reason for killing the trees was that the roots were buckling the State Street sidewalk in front of the bank, making it difficult for customers (especially elderly ones) to navigate the sidewalk. The manager also claimed that this problem couldn't be resolved with the city.
Pretty clearly, this isn't true. The sidewalk is in good shape. I walked along it a few days ago. City officials didn't want the trees removed. So what is the real reason US Bank wanted the trees cut down?
Well, only US Bank knows for sure. Convenience is one likely theory. The bank didn't like the messiness of leaves falling in autumn. Which, of course, is what the leaves of deciduous trees do in the fall. Fall.
Regardless, here's the most important apparent fact that hasn't been stressed, or even pointed out, really, in Statesman Journal stories about the tree-cutting:
The City of Salem didn't want to cut down the trees.
Only US Bank did. Along with the Salem Chamber of Commerce. Not surprising, since the regional president of US Bank, Ryan Allbritton, is president-elect of the Chamber.
(Allbritton's office reportedly is on the top floor of the downtown US Bank branch. The trees probably obscured the view from his window(s). Whether this is another reason for killing the trees is speculation.)
As noted in what seems to be an accurate rendition of events, the city's Shade Tree Committee repeatedly denied the US Bank request to cut down the five State Street trees. The city's urban forester affirmed that the trees were not diseased and were not pushing up the sidewalk.
My understanding is that neither the city's Director of Public Works nor the City Manager felt that the trees should be removed. So how is it that five ugly stumps rather than five mature beautiful trees are soon going to un-grace the street in front of the downtown US Bank branch?
Because US Bank, and its Chamber of Commerce "posse," pressured the City to do what it didn't want to do, but legally felt it was required to do: allow the trees to be killed.
Why? Because a seeming loophole in the shade tree ordinance allows trees in the Historic District to be removed if they obscure historically significant buildings.
(I need to learn more about this; haven't yet gotten a copy of the City's letter where the reasoning for allowing the tree-killing is stated.)
So even though US Bank's actions are against the city's shade tree ordinance, and there was no safety reason for removing the trees, Albritton and US Bank got their way because the City of Salem felt (probably correctly) that it wouldn't win a legal battle if the bank appealed a decision that forbade the tree killing.
What irks my wife and me about this is that she doesn't recall the US Bank manager she talked with saying anything about the trees needing to be killed because they obscured some architectural details of the building.
Thus US Bank found a legal reason to get its way that seemingly had nothing to do with the real reason(s) Albritton and company wanted the trees killed. Which still remains a semi-mystery.
Yes, this is the way big business often gets its way: out-lawyer, out-spend, and out-lobby the "little guys" (remember the 99%?). This happens at all levels of governmental decision-making, local, state, federal. However, most reasonable people would agree that this isn't the way things should be.
From what I've heard, small businesses in the State Street area didn't want the trees killed. Having talked with quite a few other people during the past week, I can say that I haven't found anyone who applauds the removal of those five trees.
Yet it was done. For no good reason.
I deeply doubt that executives at US Bank were lying awake at night, visions of architectural details on the venerable downtown branch being obscured by tree branches and leaves running through their heads. This, though, apparently is the legal reason all of the trees soon will be dead and gone.
The Salem tree ordinance needs to be fixed so this debacle never happens again.
[Update: after reading a comment that said the ordinance only refers to "planting" trees in the Historic District, I'm less sure about this. The commenter seems to be correct. The pertinent section, 86.130, says:
(c) In addition to the above regulations, the following guidelines shall apply to the planting of
trees in the Salem Downtown Historic District and the Central Business District:
(1) Trees shall not be planted in a location which would obscure significant architectural features.
So now I wonder whether the City should have gone ahead and let US Bank appeal a "no cut" decision. A hearings officer might have upheld that decision. We'll never know now. Anyway, as noted below the City needs to refine the ordinance to make clear that if a planted tree does obscure significant architectural features, the solution is to prune the tree -- not kill it.]
There needs to be a much better process for determining the proper balance between the value of large shade trees in the downtown Historic District and the value of being able to see the structural details of historic buildings.
Have you ever heard of this word, "pruning," Mr. Albritton and other US Bank executives?
My wife and I do it all the time on large trees on our property. We don't kill them. We prune them. And I happily deal with all the leaves they drop in the fall, even though I'm one 64 year old person and don't have the resources of a multi-billion dollar corporation behind me.
I'll end with a final worry: as noted above, Ryan Allbritton of US Bank is the president-elect of the Salem Chamber of Commerce.
From what I've learned about this tree-killing episode, Allbritton displayed a poor leadership and managerial style in dealing with the City of Salem and downtown businesses/people opposed to removing the trees. Collaborating, communicating, negotiating, compromising -- these took a back seat to political power-plays.
Again... yeah, all too often this is how big corporations and the Salem Chamber of Commerce like to play their games. It's just disturbing if we see more-of-the-same during Allbritton's reign as Chamber president.
Here's a suggestion for Mr. Allbritton: the final two trees haven't been cut down yet because birds are nesting in them. Let them stay. Plant some large replacement trees in the areas occupied by the three trees you've already cut down. Issue a public statement apologizing for any ill will and bad feelings caused by the bank's actions.
Then head to La Capitale and buy a dinner prepared by David Rosales, who was arrested because he angrily protested the killing of the State Street trees. Shake hands with David and say, "let's start over, my friend."
Now, that would be almost as beautiful as the two trees I hope you will save.