PORT TOWNSEND — It’s not a matter of whether the Lombardy poplar trees will come down, it’s a question of what happens in the wake of the clearcutting. That was the message from city officials during a town hall meeting about the 130 poplars lining the Sims Way entrance to Port Townsend.
The online forum, hosted by City Manager John Mauro last week, drew about 40 participants, including local officials and several who were vehement in their opposition to what’s known as the Sims Way Gateway and Boat Yard Expansion Project.
Jeff Randall, a Jefferson County Public Utilities District commissioner, spoke about the problem of poplars and power lines being too close together on the Boat Haven side of Sims Way.
In recent months, a plan has taken shape to remove the trees, underground the power lines, expand the boatyard slightly and build a pedestrian path where the trees currently stand. All of this has been sparked by safety concerns and city officials’ belief that the non-native poplar species is no longer the right tree to line Sims Way.
Julie Jaman was among the skeptics.
“I hear, although it wasn’t said really clearly, the poplars are coming down as an ‘emergency,’ says Jeff Randall. And that’s before there is a design or any review of consequences,” Jaman said, or “of any of the options that you have brought up, let alone any the community might want to have considered.
“That’s a problem, when you start doing a project without having a complete review.”
Mauro, after seeking to redirect Jaman’s comments, responded.
“I think it’s great to hear different perspectives here. But I think we’re beyond the point of deciding if this will happen. I think it’s more how it will happen. So I think focusing comments on how to be productive and get a good project is probably going to be of greatest value here.”
The town-hall meeting was supposed to last just an hour, but as members of the public continued to ask questions, officials from the PUD, the city and the Port of Port Townsend continued to speak for almost 90 minutes.
Port Executive Director Eron Berg cited two incidents that raised the safety issue.
On June 25, Port environmental specialist Terry Taylor alerted his co-workers to a problem at the Boat Haven. As he walked near the power lines and poplar trees near the edge of the yard, “a loud zap and snap went off and my hair (short and not much left) stood up,” he wrote in an email.
The power lines, moving with the breeze, were arcing with the branches of the two poplar trees, Taylor noted. He added that he was more accustomed to seeing arcing occur at transformers, “but zap/bam, there you have it … 45 min later, my scalp still tingles.”
Another incident happened Oct. 6, Berg said.
In an email to the Peninsula Daily News after the town-hall meeting, he described how Port employees were moving a sailboat to the north end of the yard, near the Safeway gas station. The boat’s jib stay “contacted a Jefferson County PUD 115kV transmission line,” Berg said.
He watched from his office window at the port. The jib stay moved the lowest of the three wires 2 feet out of its normal position. Berg and other office personnel began yelling at the yard employees to stop moving the boat.
Since its stay was made of a non-conducting, synthetic material, an electrical ground fault did not occur, and no injuries or equipment damage occurred, Berg reported.
Since then Port, PUD and city leaders have begun the planning for the $2 million Sims Way-Boat Haven expansion.
After the project garnered a $1 million Public Infrastructure Fund grant from the Board of Jefferson County Commissioners, an initial town-hall meeting was held online Nov. 9. This public-input process will continue, officials have said.
At the same time, there is no time frame for when the poplars will be cut, said Steve King, Port Townsend’s Public Works director.
Another major reason for the tree removal is to enlarge the Boat Haven. Once the trees come down and the power lines are buried, the boatyard can grow and accommodate larger commercial vessels, Berg said.
The maritime culture of this community depends on the boatyard and job creation around those bigger boats, he added.
“We are happy to give anybody a walkabout tour of the boatyard,” said Berg, whose contact information, along with those of the port commissioners, can be found at www.portofpt.com.
“We’ll show you these conflict issues,” Berg said.
“These are sincere.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]