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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Street project threatens trees near historic homes

Street project threatens trees near historic homes

The Oregon Department of Transportation is concerned that reconstruction of Dewey Avenue and the sidewalk, which begins next year, will harm six old trees near historic homes and cause them to eventually die. The agency has offered to cut the trees down and replace them with younger trees as part of the expense of the project. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
The Oregon Department of Transportation is concerned that reconstruction of Dewey Avenue and the sidewalk, which begins next year, will harm six old trees near historic homes and cause them to eventually die. The agency has offered to cut the trees down and replace them with younger trees as part of the expense of the project. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

When John and Michelle Howlett bought their historic home on Dewey Avenue they were captivated not only by its classic bungalow design, but also by the twin maple trees that tower over the front yard.

But those massive maples, which first plunged their roots into soil about the time the United States and their allies were winning the First World War, probably won't be alive a year from now.

The same is true for four other old-timer trees on the next two lots south of the Howletts' home.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) plans to cut the six trees, all approximately 85 years old but still healthy, when it rebuilds a section of Dewey Avenue next summer.

Four are maples — the Howletts' pair, and two more next door at Sam Lay's home. The other two trees, on the lot south of Lay's property, are horse chestnuts.

All six trees are in the park strip between the sidewalk and curb.

Because each of the three homes is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places (though none is listed on that register now), ODOT must pay to replace trees that are cut on those properties, said Mark Hanson, project manager for the Dewey Avenue project.

But John Howlett said those young replacement trees would not cast the same broad shadows his mature maples make. That plentiful shade cools his entire home during Baker City's sunny summers, Howlett said.

He wants to keep his trees — even if their annual autumn leaf production fills several garbage bags.

"I'm not happy about it," he said of ODOT's tree-cutting plan. "I don't see any reason to take them out.

"Those trees are one of the main reasons my wife and I bought that house."

The Howletts bought their home, 1242 Dewey, in July 2001.

The arts-and-crafts style bungalow was built around 1917, and the maples planted about the same time, John Howlett said.

Lay, who has lived for about 20 years in his similarly-styled home next door at 1240 Dewey, said he too would prefer his pair of maples stand rather than fall.

"I'd just as soon keep them, but if they have to go they have to go," he said.

Howlett said ODOT officials told him they could leave the trees, but could not guarantee they would survive the rebuilding of the street and sidewalks.

In that case, Howlett said, ODOT would not pay for replacement trees if his maples died.

Hanson said leaving the trees might be an option; however, ODOT's current plans calls for cutting the trees rather than leaving them in place to see if they survive.

He said the arborist ODOT hired to look at the trees concluded rebuilding the street and sidewalks would harm the trees so severely they would die eventually.

Howlett said he doesn't care if the agency leaves alone the sidewalk in front of his home.

He said he also offered to let the agency move the sidewalk closer to his home.

"I don't mind losing part of the lawn to the sidewalk," Howlett said. "I'd rather have my trees."

Why six trees matter

If the situation seems unusually complicated for a sextet of trees, here's why all the paperwork and studies were needed:

Because ODOT will use federal money to rebuild Dewey Avenue, the agency must comply with a federal law designed to protect historic sites from construction work, Hanson said.

That law required ODOT to first determine whether any properties along Dewey are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hanson said ODOT, working with the State Historic Preservation Office, concluded that the Howletts', Lays' and the third home meet the minimum requirements for listing.

That third home, at 1234 Dewey, is owned by the Fannie Mae mortgage company, and is for sale. The home is vacant.

Although none of the three owners has applied to add their home to the historic register, Hanson said federal law requires ODOT to treat eligible homes the same as ones that actually are on the list.

And that means the agency must mitigate any "adverse effects" the construction could cause.

In this case the only adverse effect ODOT identified is the loss of the six mature trees.

Hanson said officials from Baker City, not ODOT, will work with the property owners to decide which species to plant to replace the old trees if they die or are felled.

City Attorney Tim Collins said the city's tree board maintains a list of species best suited to planting in the park strip between the curb and sidewalk.

ODOT also is accepting comments from the public about its proposal to replace the trees.

Written comments are due by Dec. 20, and should be mailed to Hanson at ODOT, Region 5, 3012 Island Ave., La Grande, OR 97850.

Howlett said he plans to discuss the situation with ODOT officials soon.

"Obviously Michelle and I are going to do what we can to save (the trees)," he said.

 
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