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News / Business / Clark County Business

A fine balance: Vancouver juggles protecting trees, managing growth as population expands

City officials strive to preserve the urban canopy

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: November 16, 2023, 6:06am

As Wayne Nussbaum took his dog for a stroll around the neighborhood, he stopped in confusion at the site of multiple tree stumps along a portion of Devine Road.

The current estimate for trees in Vancouver’s public spaces is nearly 100,000. If taken into account, trees on private property would skyrocket this tally by hundreds of thousands. And the city plans adding thousands more, with Vancouver officials chasing its goal to reach a 28 percent tree canopy by 2030, or roughly 3,000 acres of new cover.

When standing, the trees on Devine Road cast shade on the sidewalk, cooling the path for walkers, and absorb the sound of traffic from reaching homes nearby, Nussbaum said. Now wooden stubs cleared for building, he wryly posited that the trees’ environmental benefits are moot and, even further, at odds with the city of Vancouver’s vision for its urban canopy.

Nearly 200,000 people live in Vancouver, a population that will only continue to grow and, with it, ensuing developments. The Building Industry Association of Clark County estimates that the county’s population will reach 718,154 by 2045.

Do You Need a Tree Permit?

Check out www.cityofvancouver.us/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/doineedatree
or call Vancouver Urban Forestry at 360-487-8328.

As subdivisions, parking lots and other developments emerge in an ever-growing urban sprawl, Nussbaum wonders how Vancouver will squeeze in the additional 124,900 trees needed to reach its canopy goal. Even further, he argued, small saplings that replace matured stands in the city’s urban forest will take years to provide environmental benefits — and perhaps face high mortality rates in future droughts.

“In 20 years, those new plantings may do good, but we need to take care of our big trees right now,” Nussbaum said.

The rundown on a cut-down

Vancouver’s city codes say all trees are protected — with some exceptions, said Charles Ray, urban forester. These stands may be designated for holiday tree sales, pose a hazard or are unhealthy.

Then there are valid removals with a permit. Here’s a basic breakdown of what this involves:

Developers must abide by tree-density standards and show the city how they plan to meet those. Density is measured with “units,” and projects need to meet a minimum of 30 tree units per acre. These units are based on a tree’s characteristics, including how big its diameter is — a young tree is worth less than an older one.

This baseline must be met or exceeded for a project. Otherwise, builders must plant the remaining tree units on an off-site location they own or pay $850 per missing unit into Vancouver’s tree fund, a pot that currently contains more than a million dollars. Ray said urban forestry pulls roughly $27,000 annually from the fund to support its programming, such as tree care or health assessments.

Most developers meet tree-density requirements, he continued, but there’s a catch.

Tree preservation is often not prioritized, meaning older trees — those that are likelier to cast more shade or sequester more carbon from the air — are disproportionately removed, according to Ray. For developers, this can be difficult, because older trees require space to withstand building impacts, as their root system is complex and robust.

Considering this, urban foresters are attempting to update codes that will reduce the unnecessary removal of trees during development. These efforts, spanning back to 2021, are wrapped within Vancouver’s Urban Forestry Management Plan, a document that serves as a 25-year road map for city trees.

“Communities can’t stop development,” Ray said. “It’s going to happen, so we’re looking at how to prioritize tree retention … and how we minimize (development’s) impacts.”

Tweaking codes

Once the Vancouver City Council approves the plan, Ray said strengthening codes will be among the first action items they tackle.

When comparing Vancouver with other municipalities in the Pacific Northwest, consulting firm Teragan and Associates found the city fell below average for tree restrictions and has the lowest percentage of landscape requirements in new construction.

A glaring example of this can be found in a Vancouver landscaping code that specifies “net,” a measurement that is seldom used in other communities, Ray said.

To illustrate, say you have an acre that is being developed, and 20 percent of it is designated for landscaping. Because Vancouver’s code specifies a “net” requirement, that means only land available for landscaping that’s not being used for a structure or parking — no matter how small — must be 20 percent landscaped, as opposed to landscaping 20 percent of the entire acre. What could otherwise host multiple trees is rendered to a meager amount.

The bright side: Vancouver’s urban forestry has slowly become more involved in the development process — from pre-application to a project’s final acceptance. Before, the department’s presence was segmented. Now, Ray said, it’s a priority instead of an afterthought.

“Some people would like to pit the need for housing against trees, but it should not be this way,” he said. “We can have both and need both to address climate disparities. Everyone needs and deserves access to trees and nature. We just need smarter design and growth. Build up, not out.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff writer