Tree ordinance badly needed in Milwaukie
As I walked on King Road in urban Milwaukie recently, a coyote suddenly appeared and dashed down the sidewalk. She finally stopped in the front yard of a house next to the entrance to the Mission Park construction site. The coyote appeared to have a bewildered look on her face, not that different from the reaction of a family I saw the day before on the same sidewalk. Two parents and their young children were gazing in shock at the giant pile of stumps, slash and housing rubble that was once a healthy forest.
The coyote probably had a den hidden in the forest, now reduced to a muddy construction site covering nearly 3 acres. Few if any knew she lived there and most everyone in Milwaukie had no idea there was a forest of 50-to-100-year-old trees down the private dirt driveway off King Road. Had the public been aware there was a 54-inch diameter Ponderosa Pine and a 52-inch Douglas fir among 27 mature evergreens farther down that dirt driveway, I believe the Mission Park project would have a different character.
I lived nearby for 10 years before I knew of the forest and I only discovered it when I was looking at the Google Earth view of my neighborhood. It shows an incredible canopy of more than 100 large trees at the site just east of Home Avenue. You can still see it on Google Earth, but in reality it's gone, and I knew the moment the big ones fell. Like a small earthquake, they shook my house more than 200 feet away when they dropped.
This forest could have been carved into an incredible park or a small park within a smaller development. But due to the lack of a city tree ordinance and inflexible development laws, a two-acre commercial clearcut of nearly 100 trees was allowed to happen within Milwaukie's city limits. The taller of the 100 would have surely qualified as Milwaukie and Clackamas County Heritage Trees. If they were visible to the public I feel confident this clearcut would have been vigorously protested. And if the property were in Portland, govered by much stricter regulations with tree protections, it certainly would have been developed differently with more trees standing.
This unique property was more than just trees. It was apparently a Depression Era farm with a windmill still standing. Two houses, one nearly 100 years old, were torn down and they likely were of historical significance.
Without a tree ordinance the Milwaukie City Council did all it legally could to save a handful of trees on the fringes of the Mission Park property, even though it appears several of them that were supposed to have been spared were cut anyway. An investigation is underway, as reported in a Clackamas Review news article last week, "Tree controversies developing in Milwaukie." But under current law, the developer had a financial incentive to log — knowing the cost of mitigation trees was considerably less than what the big trees would draw at a timber mill. Even if no profit was involved, clearing trees makes development cheaper and easier and it is the default option in the absence of a tree law.
We can't bring back the stately evergreens that were mowed down like weeds at Mission Park, and I believe what has happened is shameful. But what we can do in Milwaukie is enact a tree ordinance, update our development laws and improve the appeals process of Planning Commission decisions. Now that Milwaukie has been discovered and developers are snapping up all available properties, we should move as quickly as possible.
Ley Garnett is the land-use representative for the Hector Campbell neighborhood, which includes Mission Park, and he appealed the Milwaukie Planning Commission's decision for a total clearcut of the area to City Council. He is also a member of the Milwaukie Tree Board.