Councilman: Meeting about oak tree should have been public

Lifelong Whidbey Island resident Earle Darst holds up a photo of the post office oak tree for the Oak Harbor City Council to see Tuesday night. He said the photo shows the tree was perfectly healthy.    - Photo by Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Lifelong Whidbey Island resident Earle Darst holds up a photo of the post office oak tree for the Oak Harbor City Council to see Tuesday night. He said the photo shows the tree was perfectly healthy.
— image credit: Photo by Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

Speaker after speaker made it known they weren’t happy with the surreptitious manner in which city leaders chopped down the landmark Garry oak tree at the Oak Harbor Post Office.

Anger was vented during Tuesday night’s council meeting, but the citizens also learned about the background of the decision to chop the 330-year-old tree through a comprehensive presentation by city staff and a consulting arborist.

And members of the community and city leadership expressed their commitment to preserving the city’s remaining Garry oaks and renewed interest in open government.

WHILE MUCH of the ire was directed at Mayor Scott Dudley, Councilman Rick Almberg said he felt some culpability for the secretive process. He said neither he, nor any other council member, stood up during the executive session at which the fate of the tree was discussed to say it should be discussed publicly.

“For that I apologize to these people who attended tonight and to the public,” Almberg said, “and maybe perhaps we should question ourselves during these meetings to preserve out integrity for open public government.”

Likewise, Councilmen Bob Severns and Joel Servatius said the city should do a better job of communicating with the public.

ABOUT 30 citizens from across the island upset with the city’s action filled council chambers. A few brought props in a show of protest.

“I believe that more effort and a little bit more money, which could have been raised by volunteers I’m sure, should have been spent on how to save the tree,” said Earle Darst, a 94-year-old, lifelong Whidbey resident.

Darst said he was told stories as a child about how the tree was important to the community going back to 1870, when children would play under it on their way home from school.

“It was a beautiful tree that we all loved and admired. But now it’s gone and we can’t do anything about it.”

Oak Harbor resident Melissa Duffy became emotional while speaking about the tree’s sudden demise. She helped lead the successful effort to save the tree in 2004 and coordinated the care of the gardens surrounding the tree for some time.

“I only found out about it being cut down because I was going to go plant something there,” she said, “and on the way to planting I saw the tree being destroyed.”

SEVERAL PEOPLE said they appreciated the city’s presentation and realized the felling of the tree may have been necessary due to safety concerns, but they objected to the secretive process and the lack of public input.

Longtime Oak Harbor resident Helen Chatfield-Weeks said the presentation should have been given before the tree was chopped down; she echoed others who commented that the behind-the-scenes process was undemocratic.

“And I will never forgive your honor for having it in secret,” she said, addressing the mayor.

“I really kind of pity you, sir, for going down in history as cutting down this beautiful tree that was so much a part of our history,” Chatfield-Weeks said.

Steve Erickson, of Whidbey Environmental Action Network, also questioned whether the council’s closed-door session to speak about the risk involved with the tree were lawful. He said his public-records request should get to the bottom of it.

PUBLIC WORKS Dir-ector Cathy Rosen gave a PowerPoint presentation, beginning with the city ordinance which prevents the removal of Garry oak trees except in cases in which a tree poses a safety hazard.

Rosen said city staff became concerned 19 years ago about the danger of the tree possibly toppling or limbs falling. The tree was inspected nine times during those years.

Robert Williams, a consulting arborist, inspected the tree four times in the 1990s and early 2000s. He gave the tree a hazard rating of nine out of 12 and advised that the tree had a maximum of 10 years before the hazard became critical due to a fungal rot, Rosen said.

In January of 2003, the City Council decided in a very public process to cut the tree down, based largely on Williams’ inspections.

The council suspended the action in an emergency meeting just days before the cutting was set to happen in March of 2004.

DARLENE SOUTHWORTH, a Garry oak expert and professor emeritus with Southern Oregon University, was brought in to inspect the tree during the discussion 10 years ago.

Rosen said that the professor confirmed that the tree was diseased and some roots might be dead, but “many roots remain healthy and active, and these support a healthy canopy.”

In 2004, Southworth told the city’s ad hoc oak tree committee that the giant tree, “one of the oldest in the state,” likely had a long life ahead of it. She said the tree could likely outgrow the fungus and the healthy canopy and crop of acorns pointed to a healthy tree.

Southworth also cast doubts on Williams’ predictions about the tree and called his rating system “capricious,” as reported by the Whidbey News-Times at the time.

The city followed many of Southworth’s recommendations, Rosen said, including boosting the tree’s health by removing asphalt near the tree and improving the soil in the flower bed surrounding it.

IN JANUARY 2012, the city hired Tree Solutions, Inc. to inspect the tree.

By then, Southworth had retired.

Sean Dugan of Tree Solutions spoke at the meeting, explaining that the arborists used an acoustic tomograph and other method to determine the amount of decay. He said they found that at least 36 percent of the trunk showed decay and two areas of the canopy‚ “the branches,” showed decay.

Dugan said they deemed the tree as a high risk. He said they didn’t think the likelihood of toppling was serious due to the sheer size of the trunk and the lack of crown root movement; their concern, however, was with the possibility of large limbs falling.

THE ARBORISTS recommended in 2012 that the branches be “cabled” to prevent falling.

Rosen said the cabling was approved in the city budget.

Then, however, conditions changed, Rosen said. A large branch broke off in May 2013 during a moderate wind gust; and an even larger branch fell in June 2013 during a sustained wind.

Tree Solutions returned in June 2013 to inspect the tree again. The company recommended an advanced cabling system to prevent the limbs from falling to the ground if they broke off the tree.

Rosen, however, said the city decided that the nonstandard system would be too expensive.

The issue was presented to Thom Graafstra, a member of the firm acting as the interim city attorney. He recommended that the city grant a permit for the removal of the tree.


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