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Garry oak proposal cut down by boards

The city of Oak Harbor is facing opposition its attempt to save the venerable oak tree on Fidalgo Avenue.

The city is one of the organizations vying for funding through the Island County Conservation Futures Fund. If approved, it will help pay for a conservation easement to protect the Fidalgo Avenue tree and the land surrounding it.

However, the city’s proposal is facing stiff opposition. The two groups that analyze each project and makes recommendations to the county commissioners said the project shouldn’t be funded.

The Technical Advisory Group met in April and the Community Advisory Board met Thursday evening.

Oak Harbor Senior Planner Cac Kamak said during Thursday’s meeting that the easement is needed to protect the tree that is under imminent threat from development.

The tree sparked controversy several years ago when the property owner obtained a variance allowing the tree to be drastically trimmed to make room for development. Critics argued that work would kill the tree. Kamak said the variance ultimately expired, but the property owner will probably apply for another one.

Larry Kwarsick, chairman of the community board and Coupeville Town Planner, asked whether Oak Harbor has considered acquiring the property.

Kamak said no.

“We don’t want to take away the development potential of the property because it has economic viability,” he said.

The city originally didn’t place a dollar amount on its proposal for the easement. During Thursday’s meeting, Kamak said an appraisal was completed and showed the easement was appraised at $115,000. However, there isn’t any guarantee the owner would agree to that amount.

Linda Kast, a member of the Technical Advisory Group, noted that the owner originally estimated the property was worth $250,000. She questioned whether the owner would go for $115,000 and Kamak said he didn’t know.

The project would have placed an easement around the drip line of the tree, plus an additional 10-feet. The technical group recommended that the city reapply for the Conservation Futures funds next year and consider the possibility of placing a larger area under protection.

Kamak said expanding the project’s scope is a delicate situation. The city has to work with the landowner to develop a healthy habitat for the tree but not infringe on the owner’s rights.

In addition the group recommended that a future application should be more extensive. It should include a replacement plan for the tree and better demonstrate how protecting the tree would integrate into the Heritage Trail corridor.

Whidbey Environmental Action Network member Steve Erickson said he couldn’t support the proposal. He said it wouldn’t provide enough area to protect the tree, and that he also couldn’t support it because it is a finite easement.

He added that the city is asking to be bailed out for its broken protections it has in place.

“Oak Harbor’s ordinance and framework for protecting Garry oaks is seriously broken,” Erickson said, adding there isn’t any talk from city officials to strengthen regulations.

Approving Oak Harbor’s proposal would just lay the ground for it to happen again and again, Erickson said.

Melissa Duffy, member of Harbor Pride, said the tree is historically important and there is only five percent of the Garry oak ecosystem left in this habitat.

Oak Harbor resident Helen Chatfield-Weeks said the Fidalgo Avenue Garry oak is the only oak tree in the center of Oak Harbor and money is needed to protect it.

The Community Advisory Board was making recommendations on several other projects as well. The board’s decision doesn’t become final until it is published in a week to two weeks.

Conservation Futures Fund dollars come from a 6.25 cent property tax per $1,000 assessed property value.

Potential projects for Conservation Futures Funds

In addition to the Fidalgo Avenue Garry Oak, four other projects are also vying for Conservation Futures Funds in 2009. Those projects are as follows:

• The Whidbey Camano Land Trust wants $225,000 to go toward acquiring 39 acres of low-lying land on the northeast side of Whidbey Island to protect juvenile and adult salmon habitats.

• The Island County Parks Department wants $886,788 to purchase 3.78 acres of land known as Henry Lane on Camano that would otherwise be subdivided.

• The Swan Lake Watershed Preservation Group and Island County wants $10,000 for a public awareness campaign that includes a brochure, interpretive signs, Web site revisions and clean up of noxious weeds.

• The Whidbey Camano Land Trust wants $17,000 to maintain the control of non-native plants on Dugualla Flats. The project also proposes to develop a habitat restoration plan.

The Board of Island County Commissioners’ ultimately decide which projects to fund.

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