They speak for the trees

Karen Jacques and George Raya.

Karen Jacques and George Raya.

City Manager Ray Kerridge hates trees. At least, that’s the impression you’d get from some of the city’s neighborhood activists.

One e-mail making the rounds in Midtown these days decries “the latest attack on our trees from [the] city manager,” who hails “from Portland where the sun rarely shines.”

It is true that Kerridge was head honcho of development services in that gloomy northwestern town before coming here to the City of Trees. Bites doubts Kerridge has actual arborcide in mind, but the Kerridge administration is “streamlining” some of the rules governing street trees and our older “heritage trees.” It’s easy to understand the anxiety that’s building among the friends of the trees.

“Step by step, they are changing things that were very positive toward the trees,” says George Raya, chairman of Urban Forest Services—which is part of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission.

It used to be the city’s policy to provide 30-day notice (posted on the tree) if a tree was slated for removal. Neighbors seeing the notice could come to the city and argue on the tree’s behalf.

When Urban Forest Services manager Joe Benassini arrived on the job in the fall of 2005, he decided to shrink the period to 10 days. The new policy would be more efficient and would conform to other kinds of notices posted by the city.

Benassini needed no approval or public input to make the change. After all, he explained, “There’s no law that says we have to do it. We’ve always done it as a matter of courtesy.”

More recently, the city’s Development Services Department has been pushing another change. If you are a developer and have a big old tree on your proposed project site, you have to get a permit from the city to cut it down. But even if you get the permit, some interested citizen or neighborhood association can try to stop you. Just like condemned people, condemned trees are granted an appeal.

Currently, that appeal is heard by the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission. The new rule would put the tree’s fate in the hands of the Planning Department. Benassini says the Planning Department has to consider all of the other issues related to new development projects—it ought to consider the tree issues as well.

But critics say the move is just greasing the skids for developers, and the planning commissioners are more likely to forsake the trees.

“It makes it really scattered and difficult to keep a handle on what’s going on with our trees,” says neighborhood activist and preservationist Karen Jacques.

Everybody agrees that the central city is losing its lush tree canopy. Benassini says development is only a small part of the loss. “There are a handful of people who think that we’re in the developers back pocket. But we’re not trying to sneak things by anybody.” He says that the bigger culprit is a big population of similarly aged trees that is beginning to die off.

But Jacques says the city has been lax in its replanting efforts. “We need some kind of assurance that trees that are removed will be replaced with canopy trees,” said Jacques, and not “lollipop trees” like crape myrtles and other pretenders that are small and manageable but offer few of the advantages of big trees.

Beyond that, Jacques, Raya and their fellow Sacramento Loraxes say it’s time for the city to create a full-fledged trees commission.

“It feels to a lot of us in the central city that we are losing this heritage, and that it’s not being put back,” said Jacques.

A trees commission would handle tree-removal appeals, help develop tree policy and, in Raya’s words, “provide checks and balances and advocate for the urban forest.”

Bites figures this commission will be unpopular with the pros, Kerridge included, at City Hall. Which is exactly why we should give it a closer look. Somebody’s got to speak for the trees.