Council adopts amendment to spare oak tree

Oak Harbor council members passed an ordinance amendment last week to save a single oak tree from development.

Council members decided, however, not to follow the advice of a local oak-tree-advocacy group and expand the amendment, but made it clear they want city staff to look at ways of making the oak-tree protections more comprehensive in the future.

During the Wednesday workshop, Senior Planner Cac Kamak explained that the amendment makes the rules involving setbacks for development near Garry oak trees more flexible by allowing staff to make recommendations on a case-by-case basis.

The proposal arose from discussions with Waldron Construction, which planned to build a townhouse on a Melrose Drive lot with a Garry oak.

The amendment will allow the company to build the home up next to the tree instead of cutting the tree down, Kamak explained.

Oak Harbor’s ordinances protect the city’s namesake tree, but the city code allows for variances in certain circumstances.

The amendment is in response to a construction company’s request for a “reasonable use” exception to the oak-tree-protection code; under law, the oak-tree protections cannot deprive the owner of all reasonable uses of a property.

Laura Renninger of the Oak Harbor Garry Oak Society said the group supports the amendment, but believes that it doesn’t go far enough when it comes to protection of the trees during construction.

Current code states that “suitable protection barriers” shall be erected around a tree during construction, but the group feels that’s not specific enough.

“The goal is to ensure survivability of Garry oaks through the construction process by using science,” she said.

Scott Hampton, a representative for Waldron Construction, said projects such as this one will greatly help in providing more housing in Oak Harbor, which is currently experiencing an affordable-housing crisis.

Hampton said people in the company would rather save the oak tree, but that they come up against obstacles to construction projects regularly when dealing with the city.

Each of the council members said they would like to see more specific and comprehensive language protecting oaks in the code. Councilman Joel Servatius said he would like something “more prescriptive.”

Councilman Jim Campbell said the “issues” with the code should be fixed along with the amendment.

“If we’re gonna save trees, we should save trees,” Campbell said.

Councilman Rick Almberg made a friendly amendment to require developers to create “an oak tree protection plan.”

City Attorney Nikki Esparza, however, said she didn’t know in which part of the code Almberg’s proposed language would go.

Kamak said staff wanted to get the amendment passed quickly so that the construction company can move on with the project. Planners would like to take more time to propose more in-depth changes to the code.

In addition, he pointed out that the hearings examiner will likely place conditions based on best-management practices on Waldron’s variance for the project.

In the end, the council adopted the proposed amendment to the oak-tree code, but Almberg’s friendly amendment to the motion didn’t pass.

Council members said they expected to take up the issue again in the future.

“I think we’ve given some pretty clear indication to staff that this is something important to us,” Servatius said, adding that he would like “more precise, prescriptive language.”

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