PORT ANGELES — City Council members grappled with a controversial decision to remove an adored sequoia from Lions Park before agreeing that the decision rested with city staff.
The council agreed Tuesday night that the decision to cut the 110-foot, non-native tree is administrative.
“The process on this particular tree has been ongoing for over 2½ years,” Council member Jim Moran said.
“Once staff made the decision to remove this tree, we as a council are not involved in it anymore.”
Mayor Sissi Bruch postponed the planned removal of the stately redwood Monday, citing concerns about the safety of protesters who planned to climb the tree that graces the neighborhood park at 601 E. Whidby Ave.
The city Parks and Recreation Department, which hired an outside arborist to evaluate the tree, maintains that the tree poses a safety hazard and is causing property damage.
“Because it is a fast-growing tree, it is weaker and made more dangerous due to the split of its main trunk, resulting in two co-dominate stems with a very weak union,” Bruch said before the first of two public comment periods Tuesday.
“Should this union fail — and we were told that the risk of this is high — then we all face the liability of destruction of property and even worse, the potential of someone getting hurt.”
Nearly a dozen public speakers urged the council to spare the Lions Park sequoia during public comment Tuesday.
Many of the same supporters had gathered at the park early Monday to hang Christmas ornaments on the lower branches of the sequoia.
“We were relieved and joyous,” Devon Graywolf said of the decision to delay tree removal to an unspecified date.
“There were several people, lots of children playing and hot herbal tea and apples. It was one of the best Christmas experiences I’ve ever had.”
Signs were posted near tree that read: “Save our Sequoia.”
“This tree obviously is resonating with the community in some ways,” said John Bornsworth, a master arborist and Peninsula Urban Forestry president.
Bornsworth offered to draft a scope of work for the city to hire a consultant to develop a management plan for the Lions Park sequoia.
“There are other options,” Bornsworth said of tree removal. “There are things to look at. No one has really investigated different options for tree protection or management, or what those actually mean.”
The city formed a Lions Park tree subcommittee last year to look for alternatives to tree removal.
Arborist Kevin McFarland of Olympia-based Sound Urban Forestry determined in a Jan. 17 assessment that the sequoia was a high risk tree.
“Since then, this tree has been discussed in at least 10 public meetings,” said Bruch, who served on the sequoia subcommittee.
“It is extremely sad that this tree was not given the space it needs when it was planted. Because of this, we are forced to make hard decisions to protect our citizens, and we need your help to ensure that this does not happen again.”
After developing an in-house tree-removal policy, the city parks department hired Sitkum Tree Service of Port Angeles last week to cut the tree under a $2,200 contract. The estimated cost of tree removal was $10,000 to $12,000.
Bornsworth suggested using the difference in cost to plant other trees in Lions Park.
“That could be an equitable, amenable solution to everybody here,” Bornsworth said.
Elizabeth Dunne, an environmental and community-rights attorney, took issue with the city’s position that the sequoia was planted too close to the house immediately to the west.
“The neighboring house was moved to that location in the ’90s,” said Dunne, who owns one of the relocated homes on Whidby Avenue.
“The tree existed there first, before that neighboring house.”
City Manger Nathan West said the information provided by Dunne was “new to us tonight.”
“If you look at the assessor records on the county website, it does indicate that that house was constructed during 1943,” West said of the house closest to the sequoia.
“That doesn’t mean what we heard tonight was inaccurate. It simply means that we haven’t had the time to research it because that’s new information here.”
If the sequoia pre-dated the neighboring house, Council member Mike French said the city is not as liable as he thought.
“That would be the one fact that I would want researched,” French told staff.
Dunne said the sequoia provides “unique ecosystem benefits” like oxygen, carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat and a place for children and adults to play.
“It seems pretty clear that we can happily coexist with the sequoia,” Dunne said.
“At the very least, it’s clear that we haven’t tried, and we haven’t given it our best efforts.”
City Parks and Recreation Director Corey Delikat has said the sequoia has caused significant property damage to a driveway, waterline and foundation of a nearby house.
Ray Bowlby, who rents the house closest to the sequoia, said Monday he hoped the city would reconsider its decision to cut the tree.
In a report to the council, West defended the land ethic of city staff.
Hundreds of hours of staff training is dedicated to learning the value and importance of trees and the urban canopy, West said.
“It’s important to us that we take care of the environment, that we take care of trees within our jurisdiction,” West said.
West emphasized that the city formed a Lions Park tree committee and hired third-party arborist to assess the tree before the decision was made to remove it.
“Ultimately, none of us have a desire to go out and start removing trees,” West told the Council.
“But I will tell you, we have an obligation to ensure that risks and liabilities to the city of Port Angeles are eliminated.”
Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin said trees by nature create liability and provide numerous environmental benefits.
Council member Michael Merideth agreed with Moran’s position that the decision to remove the Lions Park sequoia is out of the council’s purview.
“I think it really comes down to right tree, right place. Wrong tree, wrong place,” Merideth said.
“That’s what it comes down to for me, and it’s staff’s decision to make. I don’t think that they just sat around and flipped a coin on that. That was a lot of years of process go through to that to get to that decision.”
Council member Cherie Kidd complimented the staff for the “lengthy and thoughtful process they’ve gone through.”
“It is no longer a council decision,” Kidd said.
“It is a staff decision. I appreciate that we are here to listen to public comment, but at this point, it’s out of our hand.”
Bruch said the city can mitigate the removal of the Lions Park sequoia by planting other trees.
“I want us to come together around that,” Bruch said.
Schromen-Wawrin agreed that the decision to remove the sequoia is an administrative decision.
“I hope that the administration chooses to continue to consult with the community and make sure that we have all the facts sorted out before making a decision that cannot be undone,” Schromen-Wawrin said.