What's the value of eight lives? Is it greater or less than the desire of Costco to build a new Salem store on the graves of the deceased?
I'm talking about the lives of large white oaks, not humans. But those are important questions to tree-loving people like me, which includes many of the neighbors who live near the Kuebler Gateway Shopping Center where the Salem Costco is planned to be relocated.
Here's a photo of a beautiful white oak in our yard. I wanted to show it before discussing the rather dry details of what Costco is proposing to do with the property, and what City of Salem officials recently approved.
My wife and I love this tree. We've been told it's about 250 years old. It was here long before us, and we hope that it will be here long after we're gone. The tree is about 43 inches in diameter, best I can tell.
For tree-lovers like us, a white oak means a lot. I sit on our deck and look at it (yes, I even talk to it) when I'm feeling down. The fact that it has stood there for centuries, lasting through all kinds of storms, helps make me feel that whatever I'm going through, I too can endure -- just for not nearly as many years as the tree.
Here's a image from architect Geoffrey James that shows the proposed site plan for the new Costco store.
I found it in the October 23 Land Use Decision documents posted on the City of Salem web site. James added the language under the black line, since he favors saving the significant white oaks by having the Costco store built in a different location on the property.
Those little green dots in the footprint of the proposed store represent "significant" white oaks, meaning oaks greater than 24 inches in diameter. Note that there are five Pros listed for this site plan, and only one Con: "All oak trees removed."
Four little words. But they say a lot.
Costco and the City of Salem view "All oak trees removed" as the price of allowing commercial development to occur next to a residential neighborhood. Neighbors, not surprisingly, see those words much differently.
Above is a portion of a letter submitted to City officials by an attorney hired by neighbors who oppose the current Costco development plan. The letter correctly says that removal of significant Oregon White Oaks for a commercial development is allowed only when the removal is "necessary."
So what does "necessary" mean in this context?
Given the dictionary definition of this word, seemingly it means required, unavoidable, inescapable, compulsory. But the image above, again with language added by Geoffrey James, shows an alternative site plan prepared by the Costco consultant that preserves all of the white oaks.
Several other alternative site plans, which I haven't shown, would also preserve all or some of the white oaks. Here's a PDF file of testimony submitted by James in opposition to the "kill all the Oaks" Costco site plan. It shows all of the alternative plans submitted by the Costco consultant.
Download COSTCO OAKS PROTECTION
Thus it sure seems that destruction of the eight significant white oaks wasn't "necessary" for Costco to do; it just was what Costco "desired" to do. And so far City officials have gone along with that desire.
This isn't the end of the Costco development tale.
Neighbors might appeal the City's decision to approve the current design of the project. (I'd certainly contribute to a Save the Oaks fundraising campaign that pays for legal fees.) And the City Council might have the final say on the current proposal that removes the eight significant white oaks.
It's good that both the Salem Reporter and Statesman Journal have published stories on this subject. But I don't think either Troy Brynelson or Jonathan Bach covered the proposed removal of the white oaks in sufficient detail. The Statesman Journal story said:
The city pegged 17 conditions onto its decision, released Tuesday.
Among them: there must be bicycle parking for every one of the proposed buildings; at least 16 Oregon White Oaks have to be part of the shopping center's landscape design; a driveway on 27th Avenue SE should be transformed into a single-lane roundabout; and a stop sign should go in on the new driveway approach for Boone Road SE.
It's true that two white oaks have to be planted for every oak removed. So that probably is how the figure of "at least 16 Oregon White Oaks" was derived. But the new oaks only have to be two inches across, while the eight significant oaks are at least 24 inches in diameter. And hugely bigger and more attractive, of course.
This is what the Salem Reporter story said about the trees:
In a 34-page document outlining its decision, the city said the project must meet at least 17 conditions. The conditions tell PacTrust Realty Group, the Portland firm proposing the project, to include pedestrian pathways, more landscaping, bumper guards in the parking lot, bicycle parking and more.
One condition asks that at least 16 Oregon white oaks are "incorporated into the landscape design for the shopping center." Neighbors had worried construction would chop down existing Oregon white oaks, which Salem city code deems "significant."
Today I emailed Brynelson and told him that I thought he needed to revise the story, since the significant white oaks were slated for removal, showing that the worries of the neighbors were justified. To his credit, Brynelson phoned me this afternoon, and we had a good talk about his story.
He defended the current wording as being technically correct. I agreed, but said that when I first read his story I got the impression that the existing white oaks were going to be part of the landscape design. In fact, I said as much in some Facebook posts that contained a link to the Salem Reporter story.
In my view, it would have been better to add a sentence after the second paragraph: "In fact, the proposal approved by City officials does allow the removal of eight significant white oaks that are at least 24 inches in diameter, with the 16 replacement trees only being required to be 2 inches in diameter."
Brynelson indicated that he may write another story that focuses on how Salem has treated its Oregon White Oaks, which sounds like a great idea. I'm enjoying the Salem Reporter, so don't mistake my quibble with part of the Costco story for a serious criticism of how the journalists there are doing.
Lastly, the City of Salem has a history of treating large, beautiful, healthy trees badly. Whenever I write about trees, I like to share a link to my 2014 tell-all report about how City officials wrongly cut down five gorgeous downtown trees for no good reason, and misled citizens about why they did it. See:
"Outrage: the true story of Salem's U.S. Bank tree killings."