Friday, June 9, 2006

City outraged by girdling of giant trees

Ketchum enacts tree-cutting moratorium

Express Staff Writer

Ricardo Magana follows orders from a representative of Washington-based LBJ Partners to kill three old Englemann spruce trees in front of the Sun Valley Athletic Club building Wednesday afternoon. Photo by David N. Seelig

Despite the efforts of several determined citizens and an amped-up City Council, three stately old Englemann spruce trees were lost Wednesday afternoon in Ketchum when an out-of-town developer ordered them to be girdled.

The action appeared to mortify Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall.

"I want to address the outrageous behavior of an out-of-town developer who came into our house and defecated in our living room," Hall declared in a written statement.

He called the developer's action a "blatant disregard for our community values."

The City Council's Thursday morning decision to enact a citywide moratorium on the "injury or removal" of trees greater than 14 inches in diameter was too little too late. The three old evergreens, located in front of the recently closed Sun Valley Athletic Club on First Avenue, were killed 19 hours earlier.

The property was purchased last winter by Washington-based LBJ Partners, which is also erecting an adjacent building, to be called The Residences at Evergreen.

LBJ Development Partner Jeff Lilly said his group had been trying to negotiate with the city to temporarily preserve or relocate the three trees. They discovered in the meantime the city's intention to enact the moratorium.

"It really was unfortunate," Lilly said. "It's certainly not our intention to just remove trees. But the city, the way it was administering its policies, has put us in a position to act to preserve our rights."

In an effort to save the trees, several Ketchum citizens staged a sit-in in front of the old athletic club Wednesday morning. By mid-afternoon, Lara Babalis, the lone remaining protester, was ordered off the private property.

Less than an hour later, after Ketchum Police Chief Cory Lyman and City Administrator Ron LeBlanc had left, the developer commanded that the trees be girdled. A chainsaw was used to kill them, cutting away their bark in 4-foot-high, 360-degree rings.

The scene was momentarily dramatic, as Babalis tried to get in the way of a chainsaw-wielding laborer. Declaring that she might get herself arrested if she stayed any longer, she left minutes later.

"The natural landscape of the city of Ketchum is an important and vital natural resource and the true skyline of our town," Babalis said earlier in the day. "We need to protect it. I don't think we owe development a profit at the expense of our quality of life."

In a Thursday morning special meeting, conducted as a conference call via telephone, three Ketchum City Council members expressed their contempt for the developer's actions before unanimously voting to enact the citywide moratorium.

"It's a horrible thing done by somebody who doesn't live here," said Councilman Steven Shafran. "It's terribly disrespectful of everyone who lives in Ketchum. I can't understand why this person wants to do business in this town."

Councilwoman Terry Tracy said the trees were killed in "such an insensitive manner."

"We would have negotiated with him," she said. "This individual appears to represent a very low end in the food chain ... I'm sick about it."

And now, with the moratorium in place, the City Council will begin to contemplate how to retain the city's green image in the face of ongoing development.

Hall said the city needs to create policies that value the city's trees and that "restore the canopy that has been lost due to the growth of our community over the past 20 years."

"I think that we start by creating a no-net-loss policy and the strategy to replace our already lost tree canopy," he wrote. "This is only the start of a process, not the end."

Currently the city's tree ordinance only allows the city to intervene in the event of a hazard.

The timing of the incident at the old athletic club was also ironic because the city was bestowed just this week with the National Arbor Day Foundation's Tree City USA award, as well as the Growth Award, which designates cities that demonstrate progress in education and public relations, tree-worker safety programs, planning, management and other areas above and beyond a Tree City USA.

The award presentation at the City Council's Monday, June 5, meeting, prompted the city's leaders to discuss how or whether to protect trees on private property. But a recent controversy in Hailey over the cutting of old trees also got city leaders' attention.

"We had a wake-up call with the city of Hailey about a week ago (when it passed a ban on large tree cutting following a similar incident), and it has been under discussion," LeBlanc said Wednesday afternoon, before the athletic club trees were sawed. "We think we're trying to be reasonable. These trees are a community resource. The developer knows the City Council is trying to save these trees. The action they're proposing today is contradictory to the good will of the public.

"We're doing whatever we legally can to avoid any detrimental or irrevocable actions."

But that apparently wasn't enough.

What's more, the Ketchum tree moratorium will "definitely" impact business for the county's half dozen tree-cutting businesses, said Summit Tree Service owner Kurt Lansing.

"It's taking (landowners') right to manage their landscape away from them," he said, conceding that he's not necessarily opposed to the ordinance.

"I just want to make sure it's drafted correctly to consider different points of view."

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