SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents were divided on a proposed tree protection ordinance presented on May 25 that has potential to be the strongest in the state.

While most residents and commenters who offered input during a South Portland City Council workshop on the topic said that they value the importance of trees, not every resident said that they would be in support of the ordinance as drafted, while others said the ordinance would be beneficial to the city.

More than 25 individuals provided public comments or questions.

In the fall of 2020, the city council decided not to pursue a moratorium on development after being presented with concerns about the cutting down of trees. Instead, councilors asked that the city create measures in order to protect trees.

City Planner Milan Nevajda said the proposed ordinance would protect trees that fall into four categories:

  • Significant, non-invasive trees that meet a height requirement of 10 feet in diameter;
  • Heritage, old and large with diameter of 60 inches, are 90 years or older or listed on the state’s “Big Tree List;”
  • Historic or Cultural, trees designated by the council;
  • and Program, which is defined as tree replacements to mitigate trees that are removed or must be preserved.

The proposal also would add a tree removal permit process, Nevajda said. Additional staff would be required, and the ordinance would go into effect six months after approval.

A possibility Nevajda and councilors discussed was a slower, phased-in approach to the ordinance, where a smaller-scale version of the ordinance would go into effect six months from approval, and then six months after implementation, the ordinance would fully take shape.

Residents in favor of the ordinance brought forward concerns they had about its implementation, and residents opposed to the ordinance or who requested extensive edits, were concerned about city development and single-family homeowners.

Phil Notis, resident, said he felt that the ordinance would be too complex for homeowners.

“My concern is for the single-family homeowner who, for instance, has underground utilities, a water line, a utility line leading to the property, and there’s a tree over it that is growing roots that could entangle those utilities,” Notis said. “Now, we’re in a situation where the property owner will have to hire an arborist in order to provide a report to the city in order to justify the cutting of a tree when it’s obvious to everyone that the tree is going to cause some damage.”

Councilor Kate Lewis said she favored an exemption for single-family homes, and councilor Deqa Dhalac, who said she completely supported the ordinance proposal, said she would be in favor of an exemption for low-income single-family homeowners.

There was also discussion about including language to allow single-family homeowners to remove three trees every five years.

Resident Mark Loring asked if the city of South Portland would send out information about the ordinance if it passes.

“I don’t think a lot of people in South Portland understand this is going on, for good or for bad, but I think everyone should be informed on this so we get a consensus from the citizens of South Portland,” he said.

Sari Greene, resident and member of the Economic Development Committee, said while the committee believes trees are vital, the council should consider alternative proposals.

Barbara Dee, chair of conservation commission, said she is fully in favor of the ordinance, as is the committee, and does not believe the ordinance should be slowly phased in.

In agreement was resident Hillary Barter, who spoke in favor of the ordinance draft, and did not believe the slow implementation would be beneficial, saying the approach could cause people opposed to the ordinance to complete work at a faster rate.

Although economic growth and development is important, the environment should be more valuable, said resident Andrew Fersch.

“I get it — South Portland is a desirable place to live, but it will just be added to a long list of places that used to be desirable places to live if we delude ourselves into thinking that progress equals constant growth and destruction of the natural world,” Fersch said.

After council discussion, Nevajda and city staff agreed to bring a revised ordinance draft for council consideration later this summer.

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