EVERY SUMMER our Oregon Coast towns are swarmed with visitors. We see them gathered cozily around evening bonfires, frolicking in the ocean, building sand-castles, searching for seashells, and standing in awe of our pink-orange sunsets. These same adoring visitors are hiking our mountain trails under the canopy of huge old-growth trees and abundant greenery. They are walking the banks of our rivers and investigating the array of bird species inhabiting our beaches, estuaries and woods. Millions of dollars are spent every year so that people can escape their traffic jams and concrete to seek renewal in the ocean air. The natural beauty of our own backyard is what many people consider paradise.
As full time residents it is easy to forget the significance of what surrounds us. Katie Trees and her daughter, Ara, are two people who have not forgotten how blessed we are living here on the North Oregon Coast. They moved out of apartment living and into a Seaside home three years ago. The draw of their current residence, tucked back off Wahanna Road, was the natural beauty of the land surrounding it. They were immediately enchanted by the magnificent Cedar, Hemlock, Spruce and Fir trees encircling the neighborhood. Although much of the land comprising their yard is not actually owned by their landlords, they have been caring for the untended land for the last three years. Katie and Ara planted and maintained a variety of ferns, plants, bushes, shrubs, and flowers. They watched the visiting deer munch from the thriving elderberry, huckleberry and blueberry bushes. They lovingly planted an Andromeda tree and an Escallonia shrub. They created a bark-chip pathway weaving around the perimeter of their house so that they could move about the yard in winter without getting muddy.
Their yard was home to a plethora of wildlife. Bird feeders and wind chimes hung from tree branches and a bird bath serviced many a flighty friend. Ara is a photographer. She has been ill and homebound for seven years, and her yard has been a sanctuary, a place of healing and tranquility for her. She has spent hours photographing her wildlife friends. Her protected yard and the forested land surrounding their house provided her with the opportunity to experience the outdoors in a safe and beautiful environment.
THE OWNERS of this abundant and lively land are members of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Neighboring Tree’s home is one of their Mormon churches. Trees was notified in July of this year by the church elder overseeing the Northwest branch that they needed to enlarge their parking lot from 70 to 143 parking spaces to accommodate their growing congregation. Trees requested that the 20 feet of existing land between the end of her deck and the pre-renovated parking lot – the piece of land that she and her daughter had so faithfully maintained – be left intact as a buffer between her residence and the new parking lot. She also made pleas to save some of the old-growth trees, offering ideas on how to incorporate the trees into the new parking lot. This suggestion was reiterated by Planning Commissioner Tom Horning when the plans were submitted to the council for approval. Horning requested that they adjust their plans in order to save some of the trees. These suggestions were turned down, but Trees’ request to keep her small piece of yard was granted with a promise from the church elder.
In the following weeks Katie and Ara watched as the forested land surrounding their home was bulldozed and trees were uprooted. Within the 1.5 acres of urban wood that was demolished, some of these trees were dated to be 100-years-old after they came down. Most of them were at least 50-years-old. The ground was cleared and preparations were made to pour the concrete. As the women stood watching they noticed that the foreman and workers were careful to stay away from the 20 feet of land that was promised to them. It was clear that the agreement between Trees and the elder had been communicated to the men doing the work. Although it was painful to watch the beloved trees come down, the mother and daughter found comfort in knowing that their 20 feet of yard would be untouched.
Given the promises that were made to her, you can imagine Trees’ shock one afternoon during the demolition when she received a text from her daughter informing her that the 20 feet of buffer land was being destroyed. The trees, plants, ferns, bark-chip path…even the birdbath, were being torn down. Trees rushed home from work at her lunch break to find that everything once living on the 20 feet of land was gone. In her bewilderment she went immediately to the foreman; he told her that he was just following orders. According to the supervisor of the project, they had decided to change their plans and push their fence line back to follow the property line exactly. “Weren’t you notified with a phone call?” the foreman asked Trees. “No,” she replied, “I received no call.” She wasn’t even given the chance to dig up and replant her plants.
Trees went to the Planning Director of Seaside, Kevin Couples, and requested that he come to her house to assess what had happened. He walked the land with her, and upon seeing the new fence line only inches away from the end of her deck affirmed that it was not in the original plans. According to Tom Horning, former chairman and current member of the Seaside Planning Commission, Seaside has no official tree ordinance. It is the responsibility of the property owner to act in a neighborly fashion. “As members of a community it is expected that property owners will act responsibly,” states Horning. Unfortunately those old trees were not protected by the city of Seaside and so they came down without protest. The church has promised to replace the old growth with 22 new plantings of their choice. At this point it is unknown what the final landscape will be, but as far as our wildlife friends are concerned, their home of indigenous trees is gone.
Those trees and that unattended undergrowth were precious and it was hallowed ground. Some of the grandfather trees were counted at well over 100 years old after they were felled. Even the scrubby elderberry served a banquet of berries to the flighty community and provided nesting and resting places. The grander trees, the alders, several holly trees and even the blackberry provided a buffer for sound and a barrier for the wind. We all know that a mature tree produces oxygen, but did you know that a leafy tree produces enough oxygen for 10 people to inhale for a year? Yes. The runoff to our streams are cleaned by the absorption of pollutants. There was precious top soil under that hemlock needle carpet we walked on in that small wood.
– Katie Trees on the land that she and her daughter lost.
Unfortunately, the felled trees were not the only issues of concern when discussing the new development. According to Horning, the commissioners got a little sidetracked from the trees during their meeting because they were dealing with the pertinent problem of drainage and storm run-off. Doubling the parking spaces also means doubling the amount of auto toxins that the land receives. Horning’s concern was for the vitality of nearby Coho Creek, and the negative effects that the toxins from storm run-off would have on salmon runs. To deal with this problem a suggestion was made during the meeting that the church put in a bioswale to filter the added toxins. A bios wale is an underground media filter, water quality treatment box. This suggestion was rejected on the basis that it would impede on the 30 foot buffer land surrounding the parking lot. The drainage for the property currently flows directly into Coho Creek.
Tom Horning was the only member of the 7-member Planning Commission to vote “no” on the plans that were presented. He made a last request that the church replant half a dozen Sitka spruce trees within the 30 foot boundary so that the indigenous trees would fill in the area and eventually turn it back into a forested area again. His request was not granted and the plans were passed 6-1.
Katie Trees has been made painfully aware of how fleeting words and promises can be as she awaits the future of her demolished yard. The property line is only inches from the end of her deck and she dreads the possibility that a fence will be built along that line. For now, the sounds of excavators and dump trucks have replaced the sound of bird songs and woodpeckers. The view from her kitchen window is cement, turned-up land, and an 8-foot-high wall with 6-foot-tall fence posts on top of that; the purpose, she is told, is privacy.
This is a story of loss. This is Katie’s story, but as a community, this is our story. Within it are broken promises and irreverence for the precious resources that we all share. We forget that with ownership comes responsibility. Within a community we are responsible to each other and to the earth that gives us life. In the end, if we do not have this, then what do we have?
Editors Note: This story as pointed out by contributing writer Erin Hofseth, is a story of loss. The owners of the land, The LDS Church, were well within there right to utilize their property. There was no reply to Hofseth’s queries to LDS representatives. Planning Commissions are the interpreters of ordinances, codes, standards to interpret and enforce. They are also empowered to forge compromise, and today the great opportunity exists to enlist counsel of conservation organizations in place, such as watershed councils and organizations like the North Coast Land Conservancy. Public input also plays a viable role. We hope that this story spurs consideration by our readers to the matters of impact of land development presented.