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Ashland Planning Commission votes to save cottonwood

Ashland residents trying to save a Fremont cottonwood on Ashland city property scored a victory Tuesday night when the Ashland Planning Commission narrowly denied the city’s request for a tree removal permit, but the city itself could appeal the decision to City Council, which voted 4-1 March 3 in favor of submitting the application for the permit.

It was the second vote this month against issuing a permit. The Planning Commission decision followed a raucous Tree Commission meeting June 4 where opponents of cutting the tree breached decorum to make themselves heard with regard to preservation of the tree. The Tree Commission, which serves only as an advisory body, unanimously recommended denial of the permit, setting the stage for Tuesday’s special meeting of the Planning Commission.

The tree on lower Clay Street at Villard Street is thought by some to be the largest-diameter tree in the city, and opposition to cutting it down has been fierce. More than a dozen people spoke Tuesday against cutting the tree, some citing emotional reasons, others procedural, saying the city had not proven there are no reasonable alternative development plans that could preserve the tree. The commission voted 3-2 to deny the permit.

The cottonwood, which was named Ashland’s Tree of the Year for 2013, is about 72 inches in diameter and, though partial core samples indicate the tree is approximately 75 years old, many at the meeting questioned whether it might be older. Fremont cottonwoods can live longer than 130 years, according to documents presented at the meeting.

The Clay Street cottonwood is on the west end of a .94-acre parcel of city-owned land that has long been earmarked for affordable housing projects. It is the last lot of a 10-acre parcel that has been subdivided by the city for urban development. Sixty units of the Snowberry Brook development occupy approximately four acres of the original 10. About three acres have been turned over to Ashland Parks and Recreation and more than two acres have been preserved as wetlands.

Though the tree was designated for protection during construction of Snowberry Brook in 2009, City Administrator Dave Kanner says that protection was intended to keep the tree safe during the development, not in perpetuity. One speaker at Tuesday’s meeting, former Tree Commission Chairman Bryan Holley, suggested the city was reneging on previous agreements regarding the tree.

“In 2005 we had a developer come and talk to the Tree Commission about this property. And we had a lot of neighbors come and speak for this tree. And we listened to them," Holley said. "And believe it or not, the developer listened to them, and we saved this tree. Imagine how disappointed I am now, as a former tree commissioner, to have my own city; not some Canadian mining company, but my own city going after this tree. It’s like a slap in the face.”

City staff have approached the Housing Authority of Jackson County about constructing affordable housing units at 380 Clay St., and HAJC has reached an agreement with the city to purchase the property at cost in order to build the units. HAJC has said it will purchase the parcel only if it has assurances it can cut the tree.

According to city staff, HAJC says it must build about 20 units on the property to make the economics of the project work for affordable housing. In addition, more than 30 parking spaces must be provided to satisfy zoning requirements. In order to achieve this, the massive cottonwood would have to be removed.

Alec Dickinson is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at alecalaska@gmail.com.