Portland forces homeowner to remove trees, won’t pay

City says tree has disease other than Dutch elm disease

Diseased trees on Alyssa Gregg's Southeast Portland yard will be removed on Dec. 2, 2016 (KOIN)
Diseased trees on Alyssa Gregg's Southeast Portland yard will be removed on Dec. 2, 2016 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Massive elm trees that form a canopy over Ladd’s Addition streets are so iconic, they’ve inspired an ongoing volunteer crusade to save the street trees from dreaded Dutch elm disease.

When one of the graceful trees is deemed diseased and untreatable, the city steps in to remove it, at no cost to the adjacent homeowner, to stem the spread of the disease.

So Ladd’s Addition resident Alyssa Gregg was taken aback on Oct. 26, when she received a notice from the city informing her she must remove the two elms on the city parking strip in front of her house within 15 calendar days. The city normally foots the bill if elms are afflicted with Dutch elm disease, but in this case the city said they were infected with something else, and therefore Gregg must pay to take them down. Her estimated tab: $2,000 per tree.

The notice says that if the trees aren’t removed, Gregg will be charged the “cost of removing the nuisance, a civil penalty, overhead, and auditor’s charges.” Then a lien will be placed against the property for the charges.

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Fellow neighbors who received the same notice have already removed their trees, but Gregg deems the city’s action abusive and is fighting back.

She thinks it’s a way for the city to make the owner pay before Dutch elm disease actually infects it.

“(The city is) basically saying ‘we want to do a preemptive strike before we’re financially responsible for this tree,'” Gregg says.

“This was the first season that we had that it sort of didn’t look great.”

Gregg, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2001, was informed in July that the city would be testing the trees for Dutch elm disease, but it wasn’t until late October that she got the bad news.

According to the city’s Urban Forestry tree inspector, Oregon State University labs didn’t find Dutch elm disease, but did confirm two “saprophytic fungi” that are present only in dead or decaying organic matter. Samples tested were taken from young twigs and branches. The city considers the elms a public safety hazard, citing a “progressive state of decline” determined by on-site risk assessment inspections, which consist of limited visual inspections and other protocols posed by the International Society of Arboriculture.

Unconvinced, Gregg spent $150 to have testing done with a private company called Waypoint Analytical, which did not detect any infectious pathogens. Arborists told her that she could make a more concentrated effort to save the trees at a lesser cost than removal.

Alyssa Gregg told KOIN 6 News she did get an extension to remove the trees — and they will come down on Friday.

Dave Kaplan, treasurer of Save Our Elms, a nonprofit that slowing the spread of Dutch elm disease in the neighborhood, says the city’s authority to make neighbors pay to remove diseased trees has always been in the code — but enforcement has been “in and out.”

In fact, for the past few years, he says dead trees “have been standing for months,” calling it ironic that they’re putting Gregg under a tight timeframe to remove the trees.

“Our relationship with the city forestry department is a love-hate relationship,” says Kaplan, a 30-year resident of Ladd’s Addition. “We would like to see them more responsive when trees are dead, and see them come down sooner, just because as they stand, they pose a threat.”

Gregg, however, isn’t so sure her trees pose such a threat, and notes they didn’t fall during recent high winds. Furthermore, Gregg says losing the large trees will affect her property value and energy costs, since the trees provided shade and natural temperature control.

Diseased trees on Alyssa Gregg's Southeast Portland yard will be removed on Dec. 2, 2016 (KOIN)
Diseased trees on Alyssa Gregg’s Southeast Portland yard will be removed on Dec. 2, 2016 (KOIN)

“It’s a big concern that they’re driving so hard to tear them down. Why not give me a chance to inoculate them?” she says.

Inoculation is a treatment process that Save Our Elms volunteers utilize to help slow down Dutch elm disease in trees and involves injecting trees with fungicides.

Kaplan says the trees in question were treated two years ago with Arbortect fungicide, the “gold standard” for Dutch elm disease inocuation. Gregg’s trees would be due for re-treatment in the spring if they were deemed healthy enough to withstand stress from the process, but the city forester makes that decision, he says.

Most in the neighborhood support Save Our Elms and partake in this process annually.

“Every year, we go inoculate with our own time and resources that we’ve personally committed,” says resident Steve Chercover. “And then the city will remove trees where I guess we’ve failed to intervene. And yet if it’s not Dutch elm, you’re on your own,” he says.

Gregg has conceded she’ll have to schedule to have them removed, but she plans to fight for a $4,000 reimbursement. By her reading of the city code, she’s not responsible for the costs to remove trees on city property.

The code says it’s the responsibility of the owner to “maintain the trees located on their property or on the adjacent street planting area.”

The city forester then has the authority to direct the property owner to remove the trees to “maintain public health, safety, or health of the urban forest,” says Mark Ross, Portland Parks and Recreation spokesman.

Find out more: saveourelms.org

When asked if 15 days notice to pay up to $4,000 to remove trees was reasonable, Ross said, “It’s a good amount of money, no question, and that isn’t lost on us.” He says that’s why the city granted Gregg an extension, to give her time to find a contractor, and that the two could determine a payment plan.

Ross emphasized the possibility of injury or even death as a possibility if the trees aren’t taken care of.

Gregg has since been showing her notice to fellow neighbors to warn them of the possible expense if their trees aren’t looking particularly healthy, and has also consulted a lawyer.

Uncertain future

Save Our Elms, the nonprofit that’s worked since the mid-1990s to inhibit the acceleration of Dutch elm disease in Ladd’s Addition, may itself be in trouble, according to an Oct. 16 letter posted online and signed by its board of directors.

The disease first was detected in the inner Southeast neighborhood in 1993, when the grove had 260 elms along the streets.

Alyssa Gregg is fighting a notice from the city to take down two trees not found to have Dutch elm disease. The city has paid for the removal of trees with Dutch elm, but not the type of fungi it says the trees in front of Gregg's house have. (Lyndsey Hewitt/ Portland Tribune)
Alyssa Gregg is fighting a notice from the city to take down two trees not found to have Dutch elm disease. The city has paid for the removal of trees with Dutch elm, but not the type of fungi it says the trees in front of Gregg’s house have. (Lyndsey Hewitt/ Portland Tribune)

The nonprofit’s initial strategy was to inoculate every tree, on a three-year cycle. However, the disease accelerated and the neighborhood continued to endure losses. The organization refocused its approach and started a more expensive process to slow the disease.

Losses have continued, however, and the organization has reported 19 trees lost in the past two years, and 75 elms lost overall since efforts started. A new portion of infected elms emerged on Ladd Avenue last year.

“The Board of Directors has come to the conclusion that continued efforts and fundraising for a process that has stopped showing measurable results may not be a responsible course of action,” the letter says.

It says the organization doesn’t have enough funds to protect every tree in the neighborhood, and to do so, it would need to inoculate 85 trees per year, “expanding our revenues by a factor of five.”

Over the decades, Save Our Elms has planted 250 disease-resistant elms, as well as 500 other varieties “based on the historic landscape plan drafted in the first decade of the last century,” says treasurer Dave Kaplan.

Ladd’s Addition, one of Portland’s historic districts, is the city’s oldest planned community and one of the oldest in the western United States, according to the National Parks Service. It was developed starting in 1905 with a unique radial street design that is in contrast to the city’s grid street pattern.