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Why Does Portland Have a Tree Code?

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Why Does Portland Have a Tree Code?

The tree-related regulations that the City of Portland administered prior to the implementation of the tree code were adopted in a piecemeal manner over many years. The result was a patchwork of complex, inconsistent regulations that were difficult to understand, administer, and enforce. Community members complained that the City’s tree regulations were confusing and did not adequately preserve and protect trees, particularly large trees and tree groves. Developers found the tree regulations frustrating and difficult to meet. City staff also found the current rules frustrating and challenging to administer.

To address these concerns, the Citywide Tree Project was created. The Citywide Tree Project was a multi-bureau effort to examine the city’s current policies and regulations relating to trees. This project was identified as a “high priority” action in the City’s first Urban Forest Action Plan (2007). 

The project charge was to:

  • Establish a clear, consistent and cohesive policy and regulatory framework for trees in Portland
  • Protect and enhance the urban forest through development and redevelopment
  • Improve customer service related to tree regulation

How Was the Public Involved in Shaping the Tree Code?

Portland City Council directed the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (then Bureau of Planning) to lead the Citywide Tree Project in partnership with other City bureaus, including Parks & Recreation (PP&R), Development Services (BDS), and Environmental Services (BES). The project package also reflects substantial input from the Portland Bureau of Transportation and the Water Bureau.

Early in the project, a diverse group of stakeholders explored key issues and problems with the existing system and identified and evaluated potential solutions. The project Stakeholder Discussion Group (SDG) included representatives from a broad cross-section of the community—neighborhood associations, arborists, homebuilders, industrial and institutional representatives and environmental organizations. The SDG met regularly from April to November 2008, providing critical information, ideas and critique that were instrumental in shaping the initial project proposals and the final adopted package.

In early 2009 project staff presented a set of initial proposals to the Urban Forestry Commission, the Planning Commission and other community organizations for feedback. Based on general support for the initial proposals, as well as some helpful suggestions, staff produced a proposed draft in February 2010. 

City staff provided numerous briefings for community organizations and held several open houses. The Planning Commission and Urban Forestry Commission held a joint public hearing and a series of work sessions between March and July 2010 to solicit additional input from the community and provide policy and programmatic direction. The commissions unanimously voted to approve the proposal with recommended changes and endorsed a phased project implementation and funding strategy. The commissions directed staff to develop a Recommended Draft for further public review and City Council action.

The City Council hearing process took place between December 2010 and April 2011.  Council directed additional amendments to the proposal in response to extensive input from community stakeholders and additional feedback from City bureaus.

What Are the Benefits of the Tree Code?

Improved Customer Service 

Staff members have been trained as single points of contact to be able to answer all questions related to trees in the city. Staff will be situated downtown in the Development Services Center, so permit applications can be submitted downtown and fees can be paid via card in person. Staff will be able to issue some permits without an on-site inspection, reducing the amount of time it takes to get a permit.

Equitable Regulations

Tree cutting regulations that used to apply to only some properties now apply across all properties, preserving canopy and the benefits of trees more equally throughout the city.

More Transparency 

Permit process and requirements will be described in detail online so it will be easy to learn if a permit is required, how to apply for a permit, and how long it will take to get the permit.

Preserved and Enhanced Tree Canopy 

The estimated benefits to the urban forest of the tree code are:

  • Private tree permits: 1 to 2 acres of canopy preserved per year, 6 to 30 acres of canopy planted each year and established over time
  • Tree preservation and density standards with development: 44 to 88 acres of canopy preserved per year, 48 to 96 acres of trees planted with canopy targets being met over time
  • Land Use Reviews: Better trees preserved on 270 sites per year, 7 to 22 additional acres of canopy preserved per year

What is the Benefit of Requiring a Permit to Remove a Tree in My Own Backyard? 

Roughly a third of all the City’s trees grow on single-family lots. Previously most of these trees were unregulated, with no restriction on removal and no requirement for replanting.  The tree code lets homeowners easily remove problem trees (those that are dead, dying, diseased, dangerous, nuisance species, or too close to buildings) with the provision that a new tree be replanted to replace the one being removed. This will help balance removals with new trees so that the tree canopy in neighborhoods remains in balance, preserving both quality of life as well as property values.

Homeowners who want to remove a large, healthy, non-nuisance species tree that is not too close to buildings can still apply to do so, and their applications will be evaluated against the standards and review factors found in Chapter 11.40.050. In either case, the permit system provides an opportunity for the City to engage with property owners, encourage retention of large, healthy trees, provide tree care information, monitor canopy levels more closely, and ensure that trees removed are replaced over time.