Were trees illegally removed in South Salem to make way for a 'Kuebler Station'?
A Salem-based tree service and a well-known developer were two of the parties fined $138,187 for illegally removing 120 trees on a vacant parcel of land near 27th Avenue and Kuebler Boulevard SE.
The land is tied to a possible "Kuebler Station" retail project — one of the many large developments slated for the South Salem area.
The city issued the fine on Jan. 27 but required a formal public records request from the Statesman Journal to produce the names of those fined.
Documents provided as a result of that requestshow the city fined developer Chuck Sides, Willamette Tree Service and the owners of the property at 2792 Marietta St. SE for cutting down 48 protected Oregon white oaks along with 72 other trees, including black walnut, maple and Douglas fir trees.
Chuck Sides has been involved in dozens of regional development projects, including Keizer Station.
On his company website, Sides lists his involvement in developing a 53-acre retail center at Interstate 5 and Kuebler. Prior renderings of the proposed project showed it hoped to attract a mix of big box, mid-sized and smaller stores — similar to Keizer Station.
Marion County property records tied the owners of the site, Kathy Clark, Kenneth Clark, Kimberly Clark-Chaffey and Carol Plain, to a Bellevue, Washington, address. It appears to have been in the Clark family for decades.
Sides declined to comment on the removal of the trees but said he was appealing the fine with the city. He directed further questions to his attorney.
In the notice of appeal, Sides' attorney Jason Thompson said the fine was not applicable because Sides did not violate Salem's tree preservation code and was entitled to the exceptions of the code outlined in city law.
That section of city code cites various exceptions that would allow for tree removal, including having a certain lot size, only removing a certain percent of trees or when the "removal of Oregon white oaks where the removal is necessary in connection with construction of a commercial or industrial facility," according to Salem Revised Code.
According to the city's notice of civil penalty, the property did not meet these exceptions because it was too big, too many trees were removed and a tree conservation plan or tree variance for the removal of the Oregon white oaks was not granted.
Willamette Tree Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Attempts to reach the property owners were unsuccessful.
Investigating the tree removal
Following public concern and questions from the Statesman Journal, staff in December began investigating the felled trees.
According to an affidavit submitted in Salem Municipal Court, a code officer visited the property and spotted several Oregon white oaks that appeared to have been cut down by a chainsaw.
City ordinances require city approval prior to removing some trees on private property, depending on the number, size and type of tree.
The removal of Oregon white oaks, a tree protected by law, requires a permit and tree conservation plan.
The officer was unable to reach Sides or the property owners. He posted several "stop work" orders at the site, which threatened penalties if the removal of trees continued.
Sides, the property owners and Willamette Tree Service are required to pay the fine by the end of February.
They will be required to plant new trees that are equal in value to the trees removed.
But neighbors and tree advocates say the punishment is a slap on the wrist compared to the millions of dollars developers stand to make on the property. Some are calling for bigger fines and better enforcement from the city.
Building a 'Kuebler Station'?
Officials told the Statesman Journal in December a permit application for the tree removal was neither submitted nor approved by Salem's planning department.
The property is zoned for commercial use.
No site plan permits or building permits have been filed for the location but members said Sides and another developer approached the Morningside Neighborhood Association several years ago with plans for a "Kuebler Station" — a large, 250,000-square-foot retail center.
The zoning of the site to commercial retail was approved by the city, but several years passed without any development activity on the property.
Geoffrey James, land use chair for the Morningside Neighborhood Association, said neighbors alerted the city to the unlawful removal of the trees.
Weeks later, he said he read about the "hopelessly inadequate fines" in the paper.
"There seems to be no incentive to prevent this," James said. "The developer is now free to develop a treeless meadow, without having to deal with the 'Significant Tree' Ordinance and all those permits and protections."
The intersection of Kuebler Boulevard and 27th Avenue has become a lightning rod in the battle over development, tree preservation and neighborhood concerns.
The soon-to-be-opened Costco Wholesale on a property kitty-corner to the site where the trees were removed drew sharp criticism from neighbors for the traffic impact and tree destruction that the development would bring.
A move from developers with Kuebler Cascade View LLC to change the zoning on the 24-acre property of the southeast corner of Kuebler Boulevard and 27th Avenue from residential to commercial retail received pushback from neighbors due to the potential traffic problems and the threat of having another large retail development at the intersection.
According to city documents, developers submitted a conceptual plan for commercial retail, lodging, mixed-use, office and residential uses on the property across the street from Costco and potential Kuebler Station property.
An appeal from the South Gateway Neighborhood Association asked Salem City Council to reject this zoning change in early February. Council is set to hold a hearing on the matter at a later date.
Calls for more enforcement
There was some public speculation in December that the tree removal may have been fueled by proposed changes to Salem's tree laws, which expanded restrictions on tree removal and preservation during the development process.
City Council approved the changes in January. After a second reading in February, the rules are in the middle of a 30-day waiting period before they become official.
Michael Slater, a commissioner with the Salem Planning Commission and a tree advocate, said the city is much better at holding developers accountable for illegally removing trees than they were a few years ago.
According to city records, the $138,187 fine is the biggest fine for tree removal in at least five years.
But some big fines will only go so far, Slater said.
The city planning department does not have a dedicated arborist and instead relies on the urban tree crews, whose focus is on the tens of thousands of public trees in Salem.
"They just do not have the resources to go out and effectively enforce this," Slater said. "There are a lot of routine violations that go unenforced and unpunished, and I think that is because of lack of staff."
He proposed hiring a compliance arborist in the planning department funded by fines like the one given for the Marietta Street tree removal.
"We passed a new ordinance," Slater said. "We've had a lot of interest in protecting trees. We know how important they are for climate change now. We just need to get our enforcement mechanism up and running."
Mature Oregon white oaks are between 50 to 129 feet tall and may live 500 years. Oak savannas once covered the Willamette Valley and provided habitat for birds and the threatened western gray squirrel. Now, an estimated 99% of the savannas and prairies have been replaced by farmland and development.
James said the council needs to take action to stop developers from clear-cutting trees without serious consequences.
"There are no longer any significant trees," he said. "They are lying on their sides — so sad. It is simply outrageous."