A tag reading "Please Don't" hangs from a tree that Salem marked for removal in December. Salem Public Works Director Peter Fernandez said an advisory board will decide in February what to do with the trees. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Trees in downtown Salem that residents fought to keep from being cut down and turned into parking spaces will have their collective fate decided by an advisory board.

Salem Public Works Director Peter Fernandez told Salem Reporter on Monday that recent public outcry prompted him to put the decision in the hands of the Salem Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.

"I thought it was best to allow them to listen to the need and from anybody who might be concerned and then render a decision," Fernandez said.

Michael Slater, a Salem resident and a vocal opponent to the tree removal, called it a good decision.

“One thing I appreciate about Salem is the willingness of city staff to respond to public concerns,” Slater said. “It’s one of the advantages of a medium-sized town and one of the reasons I like living in Salem.”

Sixteen hornbeam trees had initially been marked for removal to add 20 angled parking spaces on Division Street Northeast, between High Street and Liberty Street. Fernandez said city officials made the decision to accommodate parking as downtown grows in the future.

Residents like Slater, meanwhile, argued the removal runs counter to the city’s own plans to spend $500,000 over the next five years to plant more trees. They said because the trees are decades old, the environmental losses could not be offset by planting saplings.

Fernandez said staff and Salem City Councilors received “a handful” of emails echoing those sentiments. He called trees an asset and that he understood their concerns, but he also noted some trees are not as valuable to preserve as others.

“We think trees are super important,” he said. “But, you know, we have to make decisions because everything is important. Bike lanes are important, sidewalks are important, travel lanes are important, and sometimes they don’t all fit. Sometimes (trees) die or the roots get into the sewer system or lift-up the sidewalk and these decisions have to be made all the time and we can’t be in a position where it’s always the trees. It’s just like we can’t say it’s always the sidewalk or always the streets.”

Several trees a block west have already come down to make room for on-street parking in front of the new police headquarters, which broke ground in November. With construction underway, Fernandez said those trees had to come down. The 16 hornbeams, however, did not have the same priority.

“The next block over is really about planning for the future,” Fernandez said.

Salem city code does not allow the public to appeal tree removals if it’s the city making the decision. A November study by the city found it owns approximately 70,000 street trees. That figure does not include trees on private property, such as the Oregon white oaks that helped fuel debate over whether developers should build a shopping center in south Salem.

A decision on the fate of the trees could happen in February, Fernandez said. The nine-person advisory board meets Thursday, but its agenda only includes an informational report on the upcoming police headquarters.

This story was updated Jan. 8 to clarify Salem owns 70,000 street trees. The study did not factor in other city-owned trees such as those in parks.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, troy@salemreporter.com or @TroyWB.

Trees along Division Street Northeast, between High Street and Liberty Street. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter files)

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