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Oak Harbor leadership cuts down 330-year-old tree in secret plan

Photo by Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times An Oak Harbor City staffer removes rope from around an ancient Garry oak removed Sunday from the corner of City Beach Street and Barrington Drive. The crew broke two sets of ropes attempting to the lift the stump in one piece. - Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times
Photo by Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times An Oak Harbor City staffer removes rope from around an ancient Garry oak removed Sunday from the corner of City Beach Street and Barrington Drive. The crew broke two sets of ropes attempting to the lift the stump in one piece.
— image credit: Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times

Many in the community expressed outrage this week that the landmark Garry oak tree at the Oak Harbor Post Office was sawed down Sunday morning without prior public notification.

The tree was determined to be 330 years old, based on the number of rings counted.

Some people, including a former council member and a state expert on open government, question the secret way in which the city administrator chose to axe the beloved tree, and whether the issue was properly discussed with City Council behind closed doors.

“I’m in shock,” said Sheilah Crider, former councilwoman and current  Island County auditor.

“They did it in the stealth of the night. It is very regrettable.”

Crider, who emphasized that she was speaking as a private citizen, was involved as a councilwoman in saving the giant oak tree in 2004 after city officials planned to cut it down over safety concerns because of a fungal infection; an expert in Garry oak trees was brought in who advised that the tree could be saved.

Melissa Duffy, a naturalist educator, said she is “deeply saddened.”

Duffy helped lead the effort to save the tree a decade ago; she contacted experts in Garry oaks who said the tree had at least a 100 years left of life.

Duffy planted the gardens surrounding the tree and used to coordinate the volunteers who care for it; she said none of the people who loved and cared for the tree knew ahead of time that it would be cut.

“I understand that there are safety issues, but I don’t agree with doing it without a second or third opinion.”

John Cline, a North Whidbey woodworker, said he is also very upset and is planning a ceremony at the tree and march on City Hall 11 a.m. Saturday. He claims he looked at the cut sections of the tree and saw only superficial rot.

“I’m not one of your hippie tree huggers, but there are things that matter,” he said. “It’s really disappointing.”

Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley said the decision to fell the tree was made after an arborist from Tree Solutions assessed the risk of failure as “high” in 2012, and then two giant limbs from the oak fell in May and June of 2013.

“It’s obviously something we didn’t want to do,” he said. “In an ideal world, the tree would have lived forever.”

Dudley said an arborist will give a presentation about the tree at the City Council meeting 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 1.

Dudley said he made the decision not to tell the public about the plans ahead of time in order to lessen the city’s exposure to a potential lawsuit if the tree would have caused injury or damage.

“I tend to listen to our attorney,” he said, adding both the city attorney and city’s insurance provider advised the city to cut the tree.

City officials looked at other options, such as cabling or eliminating access under the tree, but nothing panned out.

Part of the problem is that the limbs extended over  Post Office property as well as two roads and sidewalks, the city reported in a press release sent out after the tree cutting started.

Acting City Attorney Grant Weed, however, said he didn’t advise the city to keep the plans a secret.

When to cut the tree and when to tell the community was a policy decision made by the city administration, Weed said.

“It’s not my role to make policy decisions,” he said.

Likewise, City Admin-istrator Larry Cort said the city administration — which is ultimately the mayor — made the decision not to inform the public ahead of time in order to lessen potential liability in case of an event.

Speaking in public about the arborist’s report and the city’s plans to cut the tree down could have led unscrupulous folks to bring litigation they may not have otherwise, Cort said.

“There could be some folks out there who would see a potential chance for a claim,” he said.

Crider points out that the liability is there whether or not the issue was publicly discussed. Cort agreed that the arborist report is a public document.

Cort said he didn’t have an answer as to why the public wasn’t warned about the dangers outlined in the arborist’s report two years ago instead of keeping the issue secret. Obviously, people walk under the tree just about every day.

Michele Earl-Hubbard, an attorney with Allied Law Group and an expert in open government, said in an email she sees potential reason for concern with the way the tree went down.

“Seems like if there was really harm, they needed to rope it off and warn people — not hide in closed meetings with a lawyer to discuss how if it fell on someone that they could be sued,” she said.

“As my child would say, ‘No duh.’”

Councilman Rick Almberg isn’t pleased about the secrecy surrounding the felling, but said the issue was only discussed during executive session and he felt he couldn’t talk about it publicly.

“We’ve had more executive session under this mayor than we had under Slowik’s entire term,” he said, referring to former Mayor Jim Slowik.

Almberg pointed out that Dudley promised greater transparency during his administration.

Earl-Hubbard said facts that exist beyond an attorney’s legal analysis — such as the arborist report and facts about tree limbs falling — are not necessarily privileged.

“Officials are not supposed to hide behind the coat tails of lawyers because some facts the city possesses and discusses could lead to legal liability,” she said.

“Yes, I see red flags. Anytime agencies use reasons like this to avoid disclosing information to the public, and make decisions in secret, I see a huge red flag. And the public probably should too.”

Earl-Hubbard also questions whether it was proper to hold an executive session about the issue at all, as opposed to discussing it publicly.

Under state law, closed-door sessions are allowed to discuss “potential litigation,” but Earl-Hubbard doesn’t think it would cover this type of discussion; she opined that the city would lose if challenged in court on the issue.

The grand old oak tree, however, will not be gone completely.

Parks Manager Hank Nydam said the trunk was cut in two giant sections in order to preserve as much as possible of the wood for artwork or other projects. He said a lot of different things could be done with the wood; he said one idea is to have a contest to see what ideas artists and woodworkers can come up with.

 

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