A proposed ordinance designed to protect Spokane’s street trees could cause a regulation nightmare or save the city’s urban forest.
Those dueling perspectives may collide today during a Spokane Park Board meeting, when members of the city’s street tree committee will detail the 10-page proposal.
The ordinance would create the city’s first urban forestry program, complete with an urban forester who would oversee care of the city’s street trees.
The law grows dicey in the details. Under the proposal, residents who want to prune or plant a tree or shrub in a public right of way would have to get a street tree permit from the city. Any “major pruning” would require a permit and would have to be done by an arborist licensed by the city.
“This is just a can of worms,” said Ron McIntire, general manager of Tall Tree of Eastern Washington. He called the proposal “subjective,” saying it’s too hard to police and a money-making venture for the city.
But fans of the ordinance are quick to point out the city always has required a permit to work in a right of way, which usually refers to the strip of land between a homeowner’s sidewalk and the curb.
Currently, any work done in a right of way requires an obstruction permit from Construction Services.
People who focus on the required permits are missing the point of the law, said Tonie Fitzgerald, a horticulturist with the Washington State University Cooperative Extension.
“The urban forestry program will ensure that trees … are given what they need to survive,” said Fitzgerald, a member of the street tree committee who helped draft the ordinance.
“At this point, they’re sort of fixtures that get trampled, ignored or neglected.”
Mike Stone of the Parks Department said people are panicking needlessly about a section of the ordinance that assesses penalties for harming a street tree.
“I don’t see this ordinance creating tree cops,” said Stone, adding there’s not enough staff to patrol city streets looking for pruning and planting renegades.
Instead, the goal of the ordinance is to educate people about caring for their trees and choosing the right tree for the right location, Stone said.
The law is based on similar ones in Boise, Salt Lake City and Cincinnati.
The city also hopes to expand the urban forest, as well as be designated a “Tree City USA” by the National Arbor Day Foundation, he said. Such a designation would make the city eligible for grants to buy trees.
The proposed ordinance:
Establishes an urban forestry program.
Sets up a street tree committee composed of two Park Board members and three residents who have experience in arboriculture. That committee will make recommendations about caring for street trees to the Park Board and City Council.
Requires a landowner to get a permit before planting a tree in the public right of way.
Requires any “major pruning” be done by an arborist licensed by the city. Major pruning is defined as cutting branches 2 inches or greater in diameter, or removing more than 10 percent of the plant’s branches and limbs. Minor pruning would not require a permit.
Specifies that landowners are responsible for caring for street trees that adjoin their property.
Establishes an urban forestry fund to be used to buy trees, inspect the removal, pruning and planting of trees, and educate people about caring for the urban forest. Permit fees will be deposited in the fund.
States that any person who destroys or defaces a tree would pay the cost of replacing or repairing it. That person also could be assessed a maximum $250 fine.
Permit fees haven’t been set.
If approved by the Park Board, the proposal still must go before the City Council.
Fitzgerald noted that it already is illegal to harm a tree, just like it’s illegal to harm any public property.
“The ordinance is really just the legal authority to start managing and caring for the urban forest,” Stone said.
The city’s forester could refuse to grant a street tree permit if he or she thinks a property owner wants to plant a tree that doesn’t grow well in Spokane’s climate or could tear up the sidewalk. The forester also could deny a permit to prune a tree that doesn’t need to be cut back.
But Stone said those scenarios are unlikely. “What we see happening is creating a one-on-one dialogue,” where the forester and property owner work together to find a solution, he said.
McIntire isn’t convinced.
“What’s next? Will we have to have a permit to mow our lawns?” McIntire said. “They would have us believe this is about the health of trees.
“When I read the ordinance, it’s all about money.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Meeting today The Spokane Park Board meets at 1:30 p.m. today in the council chambers of City Hall, 808 W. Spokane Falls Blvd.