Clearcutting in the offing for historic Third Street?

Can you imagine Third Street with all of its magnificent array of mature trees cut down?

Well, you won’t have to imagine it much longer, because that’s precisely what the powers-that-be have in mind not long from now. Unless you stop it, that’s the plan currently working its way along toward city council action.

Will some trees ultimately be replaced? Yes, but only some. The plan is to permanently reduce the total number of trees.

Worse, the plan rumbling down the track is to make sure we never again have very large trees allowed to stretch over the street, creating a tunnel or arch effect.

Few if any towns anywhere in the entire country feature such an effect in a commercial district. Wine towns are a dime a dozen these days, and there are many towns with historic districts, but we have something unique here.

It requires a narrow-width commercial street and the wisdom to plant trees destined to grow big enough. That rareness, that uniqueness is a potentially strong tourist attraction. It also attracts new residents and gives joy to existing residents.

Yet some of those seeking change actually argued that other towns not doing it is reason for us to join them by eliminating what we have.

Instead, what the powers-that-be and their hired outside designers have proposed is shorter, stubbier trees planted in groves with gaps between plantings.

Consider Newberg’s downtown, for example. Is that what we want?

Worse, the plan for these new smaller trees is to avoid settling on a single species, like the stately maples now providing a welcome measure of uniformity downtown, in favor of a mix of different species. The push is for two, three, or even more different types.

Why? They say trees of the same species might be hit with disease all at once someday and have to be removed en masse.

Are any such infestations endangering our current stand of maples? No, they admit. But they insist that could happen ... maybe, somehow, someday.

Why not simply face up to that kind of eventuality if and when it should become a reality? Couldn’t we hold off on replacing our mature maples until such time as such a necessity arose, assuming it ever did?

A second rationalization offered for eliminating the big trees is roots lifting and cracking sidewalks.

OK. But wouldn’t it be possible, with today’s materials and technology, to firmly encapsulate those pesky roots if we really wanted to?

Then the proponents fall back on the argument that a confining root barrier will shorten the life of the tree.

Well, you might have to replace large maples a few years earlier, far off in the future. But wouldn’t that be better than permanently eliminating them today, just as a precaution?

Perhaps their weakest argument, stretching to the point of a mere excuse, is that overly tall trees obscure historic buildings. But they actually spend much of the year leaf-free.

Moreover, our trees actually add to the look of our historic buildings, in my opinion. Besides, shorter trees would also hide building facades to some extent.

Making the proposed plan still worse, once the current trees are hauled away, their replacements will start out with minuscule diameters of 1-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches. Barely large twigs, these trees will take decades to even approach the glory of our current trees.

I served on the committee, and much of the permitted discussion time was spent on what I considered mere distractions to the tree issue. We got diverted into consideration of “cute” seating, lighting and trash containers, the prospect of a old-timey cobblestone-look, and signage arches stretched across the street in lieu of the current tree canopy.

We were told the new and improved design could turn Third into a “festival street.”

Well, that’s what some of the same designers touted for Alpine. Do “cute” seating and a “cute” arch sign make Alpine seem happy and festive to you?

Besides beauty, the stately columns of deciduous trees currently lining Third provide serious shade, energy savings and climate change resistance, in addition to bolstering property values, enhancing historic architecture, dampening noise and even offering some rain protection. They’re a cherished source of civic pride. 

Why, you might ask, is it necessary to clear cut downtown and have our main street torn up for months on end? That’s a good question — one merchants should be asking.

We were told downtown water lines need replacing.

I can accept that. Apparently, though, the powers that be decided that as long as we are tearing things up, they might as well  eliminate our tall trees.

Couldn’t new utility lines instead be rerouted down Fourth or the alley between Third and Fourth? Wouldn’t that be a lesser blow to merchants on Third?

We were told it would require longer runs at greater expense, and be less convenient. We were not told it couldn’t be done.

Every rationalization we were offered served to support my view that the treecutting decision had already been made, that we were merely there to trail behind making lesser decisions — the furniture motif and curb design, for example.

The designers definitely weren’t interest in allowing a citywide referendum on retention of our glorious downtown trees. Instead, we got a survey that only reached 279 respondents in a city of 34,000 — less than 1%.

What the plan proposes is essentially a huge multimillion dollar experiment, gambling on something new with painfully obvious costs in terms of business disruption and negative side effects. I fear more harm than benefits from a drastically changed downtown streetscape.

Stop it before it is literally cast in concrete. Call or write the city council about how you feel about potentially creating a functionally naked downtown.

Demand our magnificent maples be restored when any construction is complete or utility rerouted to avoid tree damage. Better yet, demand a public referendum, as something this important deserves one.

If you want an inspiring theme song for the coming battle, Google “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell.

Charles Hillestad is a retired business and real estate attorney with substantial experience in travel, hospitality, tourism, planning and historic preservation. Since moving to McMinnville in 2011, he has served as a McMinnville planning commissioner and president of the Yamhill County Historical Society. Earlier in his career, he served as a Historic Denver trustee and regional Sierra Club chair.


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