Beauty or butchery?

Tree advocates are angered by the pruning damage in a parking lot.

With spring comes new life, an emergence most easily measured by greenery sprouting through thawing island soil, or from the tips of brittle branches.

But this spring, arborists say, not even a record amount of growth could repair the damage done to trees pruned – some would argue, mangled – recently in a private parking lot adjacent to the ferry terminal.

As other organisms start anew, some of these trees may now be destined for an eternal winter, due to what island arborist Olaf Ribeiro termed “decapitation.”

“They butchered the lot,” Ribeiro said, surveying the scene. “I couldn’t believe what I saw.”

What he saw were some 25 trees of varying species lopped off some time last week at the lot, which is managed by Diamond Parking.

The lot owners couldn’t be reached for comment, but Diamond Parking Regional Manager Bob Duprie said owners typically do major pruning every four to eight years, and take multiple bids from arborists before doing so. Duprie didn’t have specific information about the trimming at the Bainbridge lot.

Whatever the reason, Ribeiro said the act has generated a negative buzz among the community and arborists, including one of international acclaim who remarked that topped trees aren’t the best way to mark the gateway to the island.

“He took one look and said ‘good God, do they realize how this reflects on the community’s values?” Ribeiro said. “Are they back in the 1950s?”

The practice of tree-topping was long ago recognized by scientists as being both ineffective and harmful to trees. Topping can lead to rotting, disease or death.

Even if trees do survive, they could become hazards because their weakened branches are more likely to break off than those of a healthy tree.

“When they’re cut back like that they don’t recover from disease and are more susceptible to problems,” Ribeiro said. “And when they do come back their form isn’t anything like it should be.”

Still, with little on the books at the city regarding tree management, tree disputes are a regular occurrence on the island, according to officials.

A big part of the problem is education, said Community Forestry Commissioner Sally Adams.

“A lot of people don’t even realize what they’ve done,” Adams said. She, along with fellow commissioners and the city, is crafting a tree ordinance that would aim to prevent – or at least offer a legal response to – practices like those used at the Diamond lot.

Such an ordinance has been in the works for several years, but snags along the way have prevented its completion.

Most recently, a lack of funding due to budget cuts threatened to derail the effort, before $15,000 was reinserted into the budget last week by the City Council. That money will ensure that work on the ordinance can continue; much of it is expected to be recouped by grant money, which would come later this spring from the state Department of Natural Resources.

The city plans to model its ordinance after laws elsewhere, but none can be adopted wholesale because none meet all the needs that are specific to Bainbridge.

Adams said several things must be considered, including how to educate people about and enforce the new rules, the specifics of which are still coming together.

Perhaps most importantly, she said, the city must decide to what extent protections should reach onto private land. The topping of trees on the Diamond lot is a good example of how that line can become blurred.

“That points to a huge community challenge,” Adams said. “Clearly the community seems to have some interest in how these laws would apply to private land. The outcry over this situation has been enormous, but people in the same breath have to recognize that those trees (at the Diamond lot) are on private property.”

Even so, both Adams and Councilwoman Debbie Vancil – who has long championed for a tree ordinance – wonder whether the pruning at the lot was so egregious that it violates the existing rules.

Vancil said she’s received more than 40 emails from angry constituents looking for resolution.

City Code Enforcement Officer Meghan McKnight visited the site on Sunday, and said this week that lot owners may not have taken the city’s preferred approach, but they didn’t break the law.

“Tree pruning, including limbing and topping, is considered routine maintenance,” she said in an email. “Pruning does not require any permits. While topping is not considered a best practice, it is not illegal within the Bainbridge Island Municipal Code.”

The lot, she said, is not subject to any retention requirements. Hence the need for a tree ordinance, advocates say.

Vancil began her calls for such an ordinance more than seven years ago, when she was a member of the Planning Commission. As part of that body, she recalled, tree disputes arose regularly.

“It was routine,” she said. “A developer would come in with a promise to save significant trees. Then, within six months, they would be back to request permission to remove the same trees because they’d been damaged during construction and were now hazardous.”

The result would often be small “lollipop” trees replacing established trees that had had to be removed.

Though Vancil has pushed for greater protection, she stressed that developers are not to blame for the current problems; in fact, she said, island developers have been “very, very good” at helping the city preserve significant trees. The problem is in the troublesome code.

“This doesn’t mean every single tree has to be saved,” she said of the new ordinance. “The main reason we need this is to give everyone answers – those who love trees and want to do everything they can to save them, as well as those trying to develop.”

Pollution, temperature and erosion control are among the myriad reasons for increased protection touted by tree enthusiasts. Adams said significant or historic trees aren’t the only ones worthy of protection.

“We need to look at the trees on this island as a system rather than just one significant tree here or there,” she said.

As for the trees in the Diamond lot, Ribeiro said he hopes to study their progression.

He said some may not make it.

“It’s sad when things like this happen,” he said. “This will make for a good research project. We might as well make the most of a bad situation.”


Forest management

Despite several years of trying, the city doesn’t have a tree ordinance. The existing regulations regarding tree management are peppered throughout the city code.

Planners and city leaders say there are several problems with the rules; in many cases they conflict with one another or don’t clearly define how trees and development should interact.

Past efforts to create a comprehensive ordinance have been stymied by staff shortages and other problems. This year $15,000 was removed from the budget to work on the ordinance, before being reinserted last week by the City Council.

The city is expecting up to $10,000 in grant money from the state Department of Natural Resources to pay for the project, which is being undertaken by the Community Forestry Commission. The city later this year plans to hire a consultant to translate the intentions of the commission into the language of an ordinance. The final ordinance, which leaders hope to have by the end of the year, will likely borrow from successful ordinances elsewhere.

The public can participate in the process by attending CFC meetings (usually the third Tuesday of every month) or by calling 842-2552.

In other tree news, the Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management will hold a Tree Safety Seminar at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Poulsbo Fire Department (911 Liberty Road). The event will feature local tree experts, as well as information on hazard trees and other aspects of tree safety. For more information call (360) 307-5870. Information about tree care is also available at the city’s website.

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