Giant oak dodges pruning, Oak Harbor moves to preserve it

The Fidalgo Avenue Garry oak tree is hard to miss, with its six trunks and monumental canopy that spans 70 feet east-to-west and 45 feet north-to- south. - Jenny Manning / Whidbey News-Times
The Fidalgo Avenue Garry oak tree is hard to miss, with its six trunks and monumental canopy that spans 70 feet east-to-west and 45 feet north-to- south.
— image credit: Jenny Manning / Whidbey News-Times

The passage of the month of January allowed Garry oak tree lovers and, no doubt, the ancient SE Fidalgo Avenue oak tree itself, to let out a leaf-rustling sigh of relief.

As the month expired, so did the variance that would have allowed a massive and controversial tree pruning to allow construction of a mixed-use project that imagined 36 condo units and more than 2,000 square feet of retail space.

Steve Waldron, who represented the land owner and developer of the project, said it never materialized because of the market.

“Financing just dried up and the markets just went south on us,” he said.

In the beginning, it was a great project and a great market, Waldron said, but it was delayed over a year because of the oak tree.

“I don’t consider it dead. We spent a lot of time and energy on it,” he said.

Although the variance to prune the tree was approved with strict conditions, tree activist Melissa Duffy said the pruning — which would have amounted to the removal of two of the oak’s six trunks and 40 percent of the its canopy — would have shocked the tree, causing it to die within a year’s time.

Members of Harbor Pride, a community improvement organization, posted signs around town and printed postcard-sized petitions for upset Oak Harbor citizens to sign and drop off at city hall to show their disapproval of the variance conditions, Peggy Darst Townsdin, another Garry oak enthusiast, said.

The community uproar reached city ears. Two years after Hearing Examiner Michael Bobbink approved the variance, the city council is trying to permanently protect the tree with a conservation easement.

“The threat to the tree by the application submitted in 2006 illustrates the need for a higher level of protection for such a community resource,” Steve Powers, development services director, said.

“I think it’s really, really exciting,” Darst Townsdin said of Oak Harbor’s interest in long-term protection of the tree. “We had all given up hope.”

Now the city is seeking money from the Island County Conservation Futures program, which provides funding to protect areas with natural or cultural value, in a move to purchase the easement from property owner, Phil Nienhuis.

The council approved a resolution last week that supports the submission of an application to seek 2009 Conservation Futures money to protect the Fidalgo Avenue Garry Oak Tree.

Some downtown business owners aren’t exited about the easement, including Scott Fraser, owner of nearby Frasers Gourmet Hideaway.

“I understand if the owner of the property decides to give the tree to the city,” he said. “But I’m pro-business and I’d like to see that property used effectively and the tree saved, if possible.”

Development of the vacant property “would mean an incredible boost to Fidalgo Avenue as a business district,” Fraser said, adding it would bring additional tax dollars to downtown.

Oak Harbor used past Conservation Future awards to acquire land for the Freund Marsh area, the trailhead site on Scenic Heights Road, and most recently, for the completion of the waterfront trail.

The cost of the easement is still undetermined. The price depends on the land’s value, the easement’s impact to the property’s development potential and Nienhuis’ agreement to accept the city’s price. For now, Oak Harbor’s application requests an unknown amount of funding to purchase the conservation easement to protect the tree.

“How much are they worth? They’re priceless,” Melissa Duffy said of Oak Harbor’s beloved oaks.

Duffy recalled she was shocked when council approved the 2006 variance that would have allowed for extensive pruning.

“And now, thank God, it’s expired,” she said.

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