Hundreds of residents are angry about a clear-cut of 27 acres right beside their homes in a south Salem residential neighborhood. The logging illustrates the way a combination of laws affects everyday life in Oregon.

The legal timber harvest was executed this spring on Marion County land that belonged to HSF Development LLC. The acreage is located north of Robins Lane SE and south of Pikes Peak SE and abuts numerous residential properties.

 

WHAT NEIGHBORS EXPERIENCED

“People got no notice at all; they just woke to the sound of chainsaws,” says longtime Salem resident Arlene McKenna. “I am very angry about how it unfolded.”

Neighbors watched in dismay as trees both ancient and young were felled; dust-choked streets, yards and homes, and neighbors who called the corporate number given by loggers felt their concerns dismissed.

A Nextdoor internet conversation began with residents sharing fears, grievances and outrage. Andrea Balcavage became its unofficial leader. She notes that the forest had been no typical timber plantation; it contained a variety of conifer and deciduous and several White oak more than a hundred years old.

“It was a real forest, sometimes too thick to walk in,” she recalls. “It was a dense place of wildlife.”

Balcavage says the land, complete with a stream and trails, was home to deer, coyote, rabbits, chipmunks, and birds including the Northern flicker, Scrub jay, Downey woodpecker, Titmouse, Anna’s hummingbird, American goldfinch, Evening grosbeak, Towhee, Bushtit, Purple finch, Turkey vultures, owls and more.

“It’s especially disturbing that this occurred in the spring when all of wildlife are having babies,” she says. “Do you know how many nests must have been in those trees? Baby birds and eggs can’t fly away. Hundreds of baby birds surely died.”

McKenna agrees. “The fact that the trees were cut at the height of this season means the responsible person had no regard for the wildlife. They couldn’t even wait until nesting season was over.”

Cole Johnson has been a Salem resident all his life. He moved his young family onto property adjacent to the then-forest 3 ½ years ago. Several issues reflect for him the poor neighbor relations of the developer.

“They would start their machinery at 4:30 in the morning, and we didn’t even know who to call to say, ‘hey, let my kids sleep,’” he says. Also, because of massive dust, Johnson had to powerwash his backyard living area several times. He approached workers, asking to buy at least a row of trees bordering his property for some screening for his family; no one replied.

“I’m guessing the timber sale got them as much as what they paid for the land,” Johnson reflects. “It’s a pretty sleazy way to get the land for free.”

Darcy Rapoza and her family had lived in their new home, backed by forest, only six weeks when she heard the first chain saw. She had viewed the property in the online listing first, appreciating that the backyard would have a forest just beyond it. She received no disclosure that it might be cut. Apparently, she says, there is no requirement for that. “Certainly if we had seen it like it is now, we would have had second thoughts,” she says, looking at an arid sweep of red dirt and slash piles.

Rapoza says her children are especially affected. “The kids are sad for all the displaced birds and squirrels. We know many have taken up residence in the slash piles. Now, when the piles are dragged away, those animals will be displaced a second time, or killed.”

Neighbor Bob Stewart got no disclosure, either. He and his wife moved into the neighborhood six years ago, because, he says,  “When we saw this house we fell in love with the nice back yard with lovely trees. And now it’s just gone.”

It is especially galling to residents that the clear-cut instantly reduced not only their view, but their hard-earned property values as well.

Patrice Aiello became familiar with other concerned neighbors through the Nextdoor site, and in email exchanges with the City learned details about the deal. The experience was “heartbreaking,” she says. “We watched those beautiful, giant trees be slaughtered right before our eyes.”

Aiello finds it “infuriating that Marion County has no protection for trees, even the White oak. Many counties protect trees, especially when it comes to species like White oak – no matter the zoning.”

The dust, the acute sense of loss for trees and wildlife, the blow to property values are, Balcavage says, “all the repercussions that we are left to suffer.”

ITS THE LAW

Everything that occurred on the site was legal. It is an instance of conflict between Oregon urban and rural property owners that are especially painful to the urban people who gain nothing and lose much.

The 27-acres were located in Marion County, outside Salem city limits, and were zoned urban transition (UT). This zoning allows for farm or forest use for property that is expected at some point to be annexed to the city.

“It is important to note,” says Marion County’s PIO Jolene Kelley, “that Oregon law (ORS 30.933) says that farming and forest practices are critical to the economic welfare of the state, and that farming and forestry practices on lands zoned as such must be protected.” 

In doing their research, neighbors learned that a 47-acre parcel (the logged land and adjacent land) was intended by the owner to be annexed into the City in future years and developed into a 212-lot subdivision. Because the City offers some tree protections, their sense was that the logging was a cynical, avaricious move by developers to skirt the City’s laws.

The logging operation contact given to neighbors was Dan Dobson, Corporate Controller for Bonaventure Senior Living Director. (Bonaventure Senior Living lists its registrant as Mountain West Retirement Corporation, a real estate development firm.) “I pleaded with Dan from Bonaventure,” says Balcavage, “to save some of the trees, especially the large White oaks. I got lip service from him, basically whatever would get him off the phone. And of course, they all came down.”

Balcavage says Dobson was straightforward about his goals. “He told me he wouldn’t annex [to the city] until after the lumbering, because he didn’t want to deal with city tree laws. He just outright told me that… The way Oregon’s going, pretty soon we’ll live up to our license plate – and have just one tree.”

Another source of grief for neighbors was that the City of Salem application form for pre-annexation makes no mention that timber-harvested properties must wait 5 years before annexation.

In this case, the developer was certainly well versed in the law, and Dobson maintains that the clear-cut was appropriate. “The timber harvest is consistent with the zoning and the intended use of the property,” he says. Dobson also notes that the county land had been zoned for UT use prior to the development of the neighborhoods where people who objected lived. “When neighborhoods are built adjacent to farm and forest land they sometimes create conflicts with those pre-existing allowed uses,” he says. “It is not public policy to restrict activities on farm or forest land just because single-family building expands into those areas.”

In fact, a clause of the Legislative Findings of the laws governing the possible conflicts between urban neighbors and areas zoned for forest says, that “Persons who locate on or near an area zoned for… forest use must accept the conditions commonly associated with living in that particular setting.”

MOVING FORWARD

If the clear-cut that occurred this spring is something the community decides it doesn’t want to happen again, either the perspective of developers – prescribing greater value to community perception of them or less value to the board-feet value of trees – or the laws, have to change.

After the ordeal of the last several months, south Salem neighbors have numerous ideas about improving local laws, including requiring steep charges for developers who clear-cut county land within a decade of requesting annexation, or providing financial rewards for leaving a percentage of trees in the process of clearing. Or, requiring protections for White oak on all county land. 

These changes could not be made by either the City of Salem or Marion County, however. They would require a change in the values established by the state legislature. Oregon law actually limits local governments from regulating practices like logging on county timberland and in fact, Oregon law (ORS 30.935) says that any local government that adopts an ordinance “that makes a farm practice a nuisance… or provides for its abatement… is invalid.”

Before she replies to learning about these laws, Balcavage pauses to reflect on the birdfeeders on her back deck. They once attracted rare, timid species that few people in Salem ever saw. The birds, supported by the nearby forest, are gone forever.

“I often tell my children,” she says, “just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s right.”

 

Photo at top: Neighbor Andrea Balcavage and daughter
by their home with 27 logged acres behind them