by Ken Wilcox
Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the December 2001 issue of Whatcom Watch.
It’s now been six months, as I write this, since the Harris Avenue tree-nappers made off with our sweet gums. Six months since anything so bland as a house sparrow perched and preened itself outside my office window. Where there were once 30-year-old sweet gum trees—trees whose leaves would have turned by now—there is something of a chasm, a dry geometric wash, as if a flash flood had scoured away the living parts of a city block and left us only concrete.
Yet Fairhaven is fundamentally still Fairhaven, despite the missing trees: the old buildings, parked cars, the bumpy street, the people. They are all still here. But the green shades, fluttering leaves, the birds, the routine complexities of shadow and sunlight, and a modicum of history are gone.
Roots “Busting Up the Sidewalk”
The stealth tree cutting, shortly after dawn on the 16th of May, and unannounced to the public beforehand, was part of a scheme crudely described by the city’s complaint handlers as a necessary sidewalk repair and replacement project. The tree roots were “busting up the sidewalk,” they said, “creating safety hazards to people,” and needed to be removed.
They were the wrong street trees, we were told (by public works and park department staff, as well as the mayor’s office), because the sweet gums’ roots needed more soil area for growth, the trees were not planted correctly, the branches were prone to wind damage.
When a public furor erupted after the cutting and city officials were asked to account for their action, the initial response was provided in an inter-office email from the parks department to the mayor’s office, the morning after the trees were removed. Steve Nordeen, the city’s tree expert, wrote “Here’s the scoop … [the trees] have been buckling the sidewalk and curbs for several years due to poor site preparation when they were installed.”
The planting space was too small, he said. And sweet gums hold their leaves into the fall. When it rains, the added weight makes the branches “susceptible to breakage,” and our southwest wind “whips these branches all around.” It’s a real challenge, Nordeen wrote, “to keep them from breaking.” Somehow the other sweet gums in Fairhaven have weathered storms for three decades and remain stately and intact.
Nearly lost in the official explanation is a hint of a shushed plan to widen the street. “We looked at several options,” read the email, “saving the trees, creating larger growing spaces, adding root barriers … replacing the sidewalks and curbs every three years … [and] removing the trees.” Removal would allow replacement with a “more appropriate tree with better site preparation.” After all, said Nordeen, “we are the parks and recreation department. Our goals is (sic) to plant and preserve trees, not to take them down.”
Curbs Are Moving Closer
Then comes what was later acknowledged by Dick McKinley, the city’s new public works director, to be the principal basis for taking the trees down. Nordeen: “Since the entire street is being replaced, the curbs are moving closer to the root zone of the trees and the sidewalks are also being replaced it was decided to remove the trees.” The curbs are moving closer … Now why would that be?
Certainly, we should not wholly dismiss the concern with the less-than-ideal conditions these trees were surviving in (one could say thriving in), but the explanations do seem tailored to the convenience of argument. If the curbs were not “moving closer to the root zone,” would there have been a compelling need to remove the trees?
I called an acquaintance, a landscape architect who has been designing streetscapes and prescribing street tree installations for decades, including work in Bellingham. He told me there were a number of things the city could have done—should have done—short of removing the trees, if the purpose was to help make them stronger and more resilient while also reducing root damage to sidewalks. Like removing some of the concrete around their roots (an easy task in the business of sidewalk repair).
Twilight Zone Moment
As street trees go, seven of the nine trees taken were in generally excellent condition; only two had significant scars from broken branches—hardly grounds for a whole block of hasty arboricide. Interestingly, on my way to a recent meeting in Seattle, I passed through a street-full of maturing sweet gum trees, just above the breezy shore of Elliot Bay. All appeared reasonably prim and healthy in their five-by-five-foot plots.
Days before the Harris Avenue tree tragedy unfolded, a botanist friend dropped by my office to chat, believe it or not, about the unusual diversity of native and non-native trees in Bellingham. She looked out the window, admiring the sweet gums. I don’t recall her exact words … they were something along the lines of “Look at those sweet gums … beautiful.” Despite the obvious downside of their constricted concrete habitat, she assured me the trees appeared to be doing fine. It was a Twilight Zone moment.
Generally speaking, it would seem that the esoteric phenomenon of moving curbs can be reliably correlated to a widening of a street. And street widening, in this instance, would require tree removal. When citizen investigators combed the block for evidence of buckling (or moving) curbs, the buckled sidewalks defense fizzled. Except for one notable bump near the corner at 12th Street, the sidewalks were relatively smooth—cracked, but not at all in the state of desperation one might presume from reading the city’s subnormal deposition on tree removal.
McKinley Meets the People
There are, of course, far needier examples of buckled sidewalks elsewhere in Bellingham. Far more desperate trees than these. Any good street sleuth, standing in front of Tony’s Coffee with a 12-oz. single shot in hand, could eyeball the situation and probably reach the same conclusion.
In response to the stream of complaints, McKinley scheduled an informal meeting in Fairhaven to hear people out and to further explain the city’s plan for Harris Avenue. About 70 disgruntled citizens gathered at Finnegan’s Alley with open minds and prickled nerves. The loss of the trees had pissed off just about everyone and McKinley got both ears full. Why, we asked, wasn’t the public notified? How could the city take down all the trees along one full block and not inform the community of its plans? “We talked to the merchants,” McKinley said. “We had meetings with them.”
John Servais, a southside resident and devotee to Getting-to-the-Bottom-of-It (whatever It may be), did some digging on the issue of public notification. He requested copies of all documentation relating to the tree removal, as any citizen is entitled to, and found that the city did issue a notice on the day prior to the tree cutting.
The notice appeared in The Bellingham Herald on the morning of the fateful day, though the trees were gone by the time most people would have picked up a paper. The paper trail he passed along to me for this article contained some interesting comments, like one from Gary Almy at Public Works to Nordeen: “Take your *#@%* trees down!” (verbatim).
City Needed Permit to Remove Trees
Tim Paxton, a Bellingham software developer and frequent visitor to Fairhaven, did a little more searching and discovered that the city also needed a permit to remove the trees, as provided under the local street-tree ordinance. When he requested a copy of the permit, he got little more than a blank stare in return. Sometime later a permit did mate rialize, dated and signed the same day the trees were cut. Perhaps the dedicated permit issuer was putting in some pre-dawn overtime.
To his credit, Dick McKinley, newly arrived in Bellingham to assume the under-appreciated role of public works director, quickly acknowledged to the frazzled crowd that a mistake had been made: that the public had not been adequately notified. The street tree scandal had already become a first big test for the kindly, robust man from Walla Walla. By the end of the meeting, the issues were not, by any stretch, resolved, but McKinley had done well. He promised a follow-up meeting after staff had an opportunity to review the concerns.
In the meantime, citizens inquired if anyone had reviewed the project for its potential impacts to state or nationally listed historic features. The city’s landmark preservation ordinance seemed to have been ignored. A member of the Landmarks Review Board contacted Jackie Lynch at the planning department to ask questions about the planned removal of the historic red bricks in the center of Harris Avenue, left over from the old trolley car run to Happy Valley. The city wanted to replace them with an imitation brick-like surface that would be easier to maintain.
Lynch responded to her board member that “folks are driving on the bricks and popping them out, which makes for nasty little ankle-turners for us pedestrians.” She added that the bricks were not officially historic since they were not described in the historic registry.
This seems odd, since a week prior Lynch sent an email to Dick McKinley with this quote from the 1976 historic designation for Fairhaven: “Fairhaven’s electric street railway was discontinued in 1939 and 1940 …. However, the brick-paved railway bed is still exposed at the centers of 11th Street and Harris Avenue.”
The second meeting with McKinley and city staff, held in late June and also well attended, mostly rehashed the same issues. The discussions were animated, but concluded with what seemed to be fairly broad agreement to enhance the streetscape for pedestrians and transit, but to not widen the street. One dead-serious business owner suggested replacing the street with native trees, shrubs, boulders, and a babbling brook with little falls and a pond below.
The public works chief again promised to process the input and report back at a later date. The third meeting, on a gorgeous summer day in September and not well attended, revealed that the city had essentially gone back to Plan A: which was the curbs would move, the street would be widened. The disgruntled grunted.
So what were the concerns, really? And why would so many folks feel a need to resist a minor increase in street width and removal of a few bricks when the city promised to plant a new crop of “more appropriate,” street trees?
Ken Wilcox is the author of “Hiking Whatcom County,” currently in its 6th edition.