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Damage to trees inspires a look at policy

But does tree retention in Winslow conflict with zoning?

Interest is budding in a review of policies and practices concerning tree retention in downtown Winslow.

Alarmed by a recent public works overhaul of Waterfront Park’s playground that damaged a number of trees, some residents have voiced strong concerns about the city’s awareness of tree health and its protection policies.

“These living organisms are being taken down at an alarming rate,” said Councilwoman Debbie Vancil. “Without guidelines and policies, (the city) will continue to make mistakes.”

Some trees at the park lost much of their root systems during the playground project, making them structurally unstable and prone to disease, according to island plant pathologist Olaf Ribiero.

“There are so many accidents waiting to happen,” he said. “Their roots being cut is out of sight, out of mind for right now. But in five to seven years, these trees will suddenly topple.”

While stressing that the trees pose no immediate hazard, Public Works Director Randy Witt said his department will aim to be “more cognizant” of downtown trees in future.

“We’ve heard some fair comments about things we didn’t do that we should have done,” he said.

Following Ribiero’s and other community members’ suggestions, the City Council plans to host educational workshops for city employees on the value and health of downtown trees.

“I wholeheartedly think we need to take a look at tree preservation downtown,” said Councilwoman Christine Rolfes. “I really feel the city was careless at the park.

“The city should sponsor presentations and seminars on how to do construction so we don’t kill the trees we’re trying to protect.”

But Winlslow resident Debbi Lester is concerned education may not be enough, especially in the downtown core overlay district – roughly encompassing Winslow Way – where what she calls a “giant loophole” exempts trees from protection.

“I’m not against growth, but it’s open season on tree cutting downtown,” Lester said.

The city’s Significant Tree and Tree Stand Retention ordinance’s stated intent is to preserve the island’s forested character “excluding the central core and ferry terminal districts.”

The ordinance prohibits the cutting of significant trees without city approval and requires a fence around protected trees equal to the diameter of the tree’s canopy.

While city planner Steve Morse believes “errors were made” in the handling of the Waterfront Park trees, he said downtown did not receive tree protections, to allow development flexibility and to focus growth in Winslow.

“The concern was to get density downtown and get it to be a walkable community,” he said.

City Forestry Commission member Sally Adams said the city should not wait to craft better protections for trees before increased density crowds them out.

“At the rate we’re losing trees, it’s not going to be much longer before they’re all gone and paved over,” she said. “We want to know it will never happen again.”

Value of trees

The loss of trees in Winslow has aesthetic, environmental and even economic repercussions, tree advocates say.

While trees create shade, provide habitat, prevent runoff and make streets more pleasant, leafy foliage amid urban gray may also be good for business, according to Kathleen Wolf, a University of Washington urban forest research scientist and Bainbridge Island resident.

Her research, conducted in small cities nationwide, indicates that shoppers are willing to pay 9-12 percent more for goods and services in retail areas interspersed with trees.

Urban trees also put a “positive spin” on the basic assumptions consumers place on surrounding businesses, she said.

“Not only is an area more pleasant to them when there’s trees, they also generally judge merchants to be more knowledgeable and the products to be of a higher quality,” she said.

While few question the value of downtown’s trees, some on the city council question the logic or necessity for an ordinance amendment expanding tree protections in the downtown core.

“I’m skeptical that a solution to our problem is in writing more code,” said Councilman Nezam Tooloee “Our code’s already up to 27,000 pages.”

Tooloee advocates workshops and other educational strategies to increase city staff awareness about tree health.

Councilman Jim Llewellyn said he doesn’t want to see tree-cutting restrictions supercede planning guidelines that focus development downtown.

“There are some that want what’s already there to be protected at any cost,” he said. “But the big picture in the urban environment is to be flexible.

“We want to keep downtown as green as we can, but the nature of a downtown is that it’s constantly changing. Any policy has to accommodate the growth we want to put there.”

Llewellyn also advocates increased tree education for city staff and voluntary cooperation with developers.

While Wolf would like to see stronger rules, she said regulations alone will never be enough. As long as development projects hack into the roots of trees they voluntarily aim to save, few Winslow trees will survive, she said.

“What we’re seeing in Winslow is a basic ignorance of how trees grow, how they function and what they need,” she said.

“That needs to change.”

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