PORT TOWNSEND — With city and port officials having made the decision to fell some 130 Lombardy poplar trees along the entry to Port Townsend, now comes the process of re-envisioning that corridor.
So said Steve King, city Public Works Director, in an interview Friday.
For much of September, as the poplars change from green to gold, King has been hearing from the public about them.
After the city Parks, Recreation and Tree Advisory Board and the City Council Infrastructure and Development Committee both heard reports on the trees — and why they need to be cut down — calls began coming in.
Residents emphasize the tall poplars, bordering the Boat Haven on one side of Sims Way and Kah Tai Lagoon on the other side, are beautiful and iconic.
“No one disagrees with that,” King said.
But this species, native to northern Italy, is the wrong tree for Port Townsend in the 21st century, he said.
They were planted some six decades ago, King estimates, though it’s not clear who put them in the ground.
“I’ve heard a number of different stories: the Port [of Port Townsend] or private individuals” may have chosen the poplars.
He’s also seen a 1986 report calling for replanting with native trees — for a variety of reasons.
The tall, columnar Lombardies do not provide nesting refuge for birds; native species with lower water uptake and good carbon sequestration would make good replacements.
With the power lines running close to the branches on the Boat Haven side, “there’s a safety issue there that needs to be dealt with,” King added.
The port has reported problems with arcing; scorched leaves can be seen along those lines.
During the City Council’s business meeting last week, Port of Port Townsend Deputy Director Eric Toews discussed yet another argument for removal: economic development.
If some 60 poplars bordering the Boat Haven are taken out, the yard can expand — as much as an acre — and accommodate more vessels, Toews said.
“We’re chockablock right now. We’re absolutely full,” he said, adding more Boat Haven space could mean expanded jobs in the marine trades sector.
The City Council voted unanimously last Monday to seek the first piece of funding for what’s called the Port Townsend Sims Gateway and Tree Management Project.
That piece includes applying for a public infrastructure fund grant through Jefferson County while committing $100,000 in matching dollars from the city’s general fund reserves.
In so doing, the council authorized an interlocal agreement with the Jefferson County Public Utility District and the Port of Port Townsend to finish the whole project, expected to cost a total of $2 million.
Work to remove the poplars, plant new trees and reconfigure the area alongside Kah Tai Lagoon and the Boat Haven could begin as soon as next summer, King said.
Council members asked about various possibilities: Owen Rowe wondered if a path could be built along the boatyard to connect with the waterfront Larry Scott Trail, while Mayor Michelle Sandoval mentioned the idea of a food forest with apple and cherry trees. She also was interested in a safe wheelchair- and bicycle-friendly path on the Boat Haven side of Sims Way.
Future meetings will give the public a chance to comment on such ideas.
“The public process is on how to replant, and what do we want this to look like for next 50 to 100 years?” King said in a later interview.
Council member Monica MickHager acknowledged cutting down the poplars is like “rip[ping] the Band-Aid off.”
Native trees are already established behind them on the Kah Tai side, she added.
Sandoval, noting two power outages have recently hit Port Townsend, agreed that the older trees present an unnecessary hazard.
“Things change. And sometimes we don’t like [it],” added the mayor, who will finish her long service on the council when her term ends in December.
Yet, “trees will grow,” she said. “And we can make the area beautiful again.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]