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Urban Forestry and the Case of the Moving Tree

News Article
This photo depicts a tree on private property that is pushing out a cyclone fence toward the sidewalk.
Urban Forestry Implements sections of City Code Title 11, the Tree Code.
Published

This article was written by Rick Faber, a compliance supervisor in the Urban Forestry division of Portland Parks & Recreation.

One chapter, Chapter 11.50 Trees in Development Situations, provides requirements for the protection, planting, and removal of trees during development projects.

During the review of a recent building permit application, Tree Inspector Andrew Gallahan identified a 41-inch diameter Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) as having grown where the base of the tree crossed the property line and entered the public right of way. When a tree straddles the property line, City code defines the tree as a “Street tree” and must adhere to the street tree preservation requirements of chapter 11.50:

“Street Tree” means any tree growing in or upon any city-managed street. In some cases, property lines lie several feet behind the sidewalk or edge of road pavement. Where a street is not fully improved with curbs or sidewalks but is paved, a tree may be considered a Street Tree if it is located within 15 feet of the edge of pavement, unless a survey by a licensed surveyor or property boundaries can clearly establish otherwise. For completely unimproved streets, the actual property line will be used to demarcate between Private Trees and Street Trees. A tree that straddles a private property line and the street is a Street Tree. PCC 11.80.020.B.36.k

After making a field inspection, Andrew determined the tree should be preserved during construction. The developer was dissatisfied with this requirement and submitted to have the tree and applicable code reviewed through an administrative review process.

Then Coordinator Rick Faber conducted and administrative review and made a series of field visits. The following was detailed in an administrative review determination issued by Permitting and Regulation Manager Casey Jogerst:

Faber made a field visit to measure the tree’s location. Faber noted the trunk of the tree had a few inches of bark removed from the street side of the tree at the level of the soil.

While reviewing the administrative review application submitted by [Developer], Faber noted the photographs submitted in the administrative review application showed a lower soil level against the trunk of the tree compared to what was observed during the field inspection. Faber also reviewed the City’s mapping software to determine the distance from the outer edge of the curb to the property line was 15 feet.

Faber made a second field visit to the tree. Faber found the soil at the base of the tree had been recently disturbed and mounded approximately one foot above the surrounding grade. Faber pulled the soil away from the trunk of the tree and found the mounded soil covered up a significant wound to the trunk of the tree. The bark had been mechanically removed down to the inner sapwood. The base of the wound was level with undisturbed soil at grade with the sidewalk. Measurements indicate the wound to be approximately two feet wide and one foot tall, having removed approximately four inches of bark.

Faber measured 14 feet 8 inches from the outer edge of the bark at the base of the tree where it met the original grade to the outer edge of the curb.

Later in the day [Developer] emailed Faber a survey stating the tree was 0.18 foot (2.16 inches) away from crossing the property line when measured at 1.3 feet above the sidewalk grade.

It appears the developer had attempted to “move” the tree back onto private property by grinding the side of the tree with a stump grinder. Title 11, of course, does not provide an option to mechanically damage a tree in order to change how the tree is regulated. After being called out on the damage the developer accepted the tree as a street tree and made necessary steps with the assistance of a consulting arborist to preserve the tree and prevent further damage.

It appears the damage could have been avoided had the developer reached out to Urban Forestry with questions. Urban Forestry Tree inspectors' contact information is always made available on checksheets and through the permit information in Portland Maps. Urban Forestry has a single point of contact staffed by the tree technicians that can be reached at 503-823-TREE (8733) or trees@portlandoregon.gov. If a face-to-face conversation is needed, we also participate in the 15-minute appointment program.