Council confronts concerns about ODOT tree-cutting

Brant Kucera

The April 7 Cannon Beach City Council meeting was the first since the Oregon Department of Transportation cut down about 55 trees from U.S. Highway 101 between Cannon Beach’s north entrance and Sunset Boulevard on March 9, and the councilors got an earful during the public comment period.

The lack of notification that the trees would be removed and when they would be removed upset some residents whose properties border the affected area.

“It seems like you — the people here representing ‘We the People’ — have not followed through very well with being diligent in your responsibility to inform us (about) what’s going on in a timely fashion,” said Ed Johnson, a Cannon Beach resident.

Johnson lives directly east of the highway corridor where ODOT employees and contractors with Trails End Recovery, a Warrenton-based timber recycling company, felled about 30 trees, 8 or more inches in diameter, and 20 to 25 smaller “brush trees.”

Last spring, ODOT officials determined that about 200 dead or dying alder trees hanging over the road posed a hazard to drivers and needed to be eliminated. About 5,000 trees stand along that stretch of road, according to Bill Jablonski, manager of ODOT District 1.

Phil Massebeau, Johnson’s neighbor and son-in-law, said the city should have “let us know what’s going on.”

His wife, Kirsten Massebeau (Johnson’s daughter), said she wishes the city had asked its arborist, Will Caplinger, to conduct an independent review of the targeted trees.

“I’m not happy with the result. I’m not happy with the way the city handled it. I’m not happy with the way the state handled it,” Johnson said.

Toward the end of the meeting, Councilor Mike Benefield told the audience he felt the council was “being lectured to, and the ones who should’ve been lectured to was ODOT.”

On March 9, Benefield was “as surprised as anybody” to learn that ODOT and its crew were down on the highway, he said; the department had been postponing the tree-removal project for almost a year.

City Manager Brant Kucera said that, before the thinning occurred, he met with Jablonski and asked him to hold off on the project. Jablonski indicated that ODOT was unwilling to wait any longer and cited Oregon law 366.366, which clearly states the department can remove trees from a state right of way without first obtaining a permit.

“That was the end of the discussion, as far as I was concerned,” Kucera said. “No one supersedes their authority in that right of way.”

Benefield said there was almost no way the city could have stopped ODOT, except “take our heavy equipment out there, and block them, and then get sued for it.”

“How would we feel if someone tried to supersede our right of ways in our own city, you know? It makes it impossible to do business that way,” Kucera said. “(ODOT is) a transportation department. Whether we like it or not, their job is to move things along highways ... in the most efficient means possible and the safest means possible. And, in their minds, this is safety.”

In addition, once ODOT marked certain trees as “hazard trees,” the department became legally liable for what would happen if any collapsed onto the highway.

“You can question their arborist in his choice of trees, but ODOT is not going to question the fact that, once they’re marked ... they are essentially cut at that point,” Kucera said. “There is no choice in the matter. That was made very clear to me.”

ODOT told Kucera that the department is willing to negotiate on whether to replant the trees, what species to replant with, and how to handle the understory, “but there was no negotiation on the trees that were coming down,” he said.

Defending Jablonski, Kucera said, “the man is a landscape architect. He has professional training on how to handle vegetation. The man is not just an engineer that wants to pave and concrete over everything.”

Jablonski also “works very well with the city” and has shown interest in getting input from the community in the future, Kucera said.

ODOT will not return to cut more trees until next year, Kevin Werst, the department’s transportation maintenance manager for the Warrenton Section of District 1, said March 9.

“I don’t want them to come back and cut more trees, is basically the bottom line,” Phil Massebeau said at the meeting.

“We feel they’ve done enough,” Kirsten Massebeau added.

Benefield thanked the speakers for their comments, telling them that “we do hear you,” and that the council will “work on these things as best we can.”

Meanwhile, the city staff has “spent a lot of time with the ODOT personnel and been working to develop a relationship there that I think is going to improve the situation,” he said.

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