Local officials, public wrangle over future of Port Townsend’s poplars

PORT TOWNSEND — At its peak, Tuesday’s town hall meeting on the future of Port Townsend’s entryway had some 85 people who attended.

The official topic was the Sims Way Gateway Plan & Boatyard Expansion Project, but the public Zoom session could also be called simply the tree meeting.

With breakout sessions, quick polls and statements from numerous public officials, it was a discussion of what to do with the 130 Lombardy poplars that have lined Sims Way for decades.

The towering trees are dangerous: That was the message from Eron Berg, executive director of the Port of
Port Townsend.

The poplars, dozens of which stand along the edge of the Port Townsend Boat Haven, are too close to 115,000-volt power lines.

Evidence of arcing, burnt leaves and an incident with a worker who felt electricity coursing through his body convinced Berg that the trees, wires and boat masts can coexist no longer.

“We are laser-focused,” he said, “on the safety aspect.”

His statements at Tuesday’s meeting came the day after the Board of Jefferson County Commissioners voted to allocate $1 million in state Public Infrastructure Fund money to the project, which spans five phases:

• Removal of the poplars on both sides of Sims Way.

• Undergrounding the power lines alongside the Boat Haven.

• Expanding the Boat Haven by 1 acre and replacing the chain-link fence with an “aesthetically pleasing design.”

• Construction of a new pedestrian walkway along Sims Way.

• Replanting with trees more suitable to the environment than the non-native poplars.

The county resolution says poplar removal on the south side of Sims Way, beside the Boat Haven, will begin June 1, along with undergrounding the power lines, construction of the pedestrian path and replanting on the south side.

Cutting of the poplars and the replanting of new trees on the north side along Kah Tai Lagoon will start in December 2022, according to the resolution.

While clearcutting poplars won’t happen till next year, there may be some trimming this December, Jefferson County Public Utilities District spokesman Will O’Donnell said Wednesday.

“Right now we have one of the transmission lines de-energized for safety reasons. We would like to get it re-energized,” for more reliable power, he said.

So, “we’re exploring the option of trimming the trees back as early as next month. It would just be trimming.”

During Tuesday’s town hall, Berg outlined reasons for expanding the boatyard, calling its viability another thing on which the Port of Port Townsend is “laser-focused.”

Adding that strip of land, he said, would mean the yard could accommodate larger vessels or double-stack them.

More room means more jobs, Berg emphasized.

Today, the Boat Haven is home to about 400 direct jobs, he said, adding another acre — a 5 percent expansion — would mean 20 additional positions.

Citing a 2018 Port Townsend Marine Trades Association study, Berg noted that direct and indirect employment in the maritime sector — from boatbuilding to fishing to education — amounts to 2,241 local jobs, “about 20 percent of all of the economic activity in Jefferson County,” he said.

Among the nongovernmental attendees of the meeting, however, were people opposed to taking out so many trees.

When the poplars are cut down, the city will lose key resources: carbon sequestration, shade, windbreak and beauty, attendees said.

One participant asked whether a forester has been engaged to look at the issue — and why has this monumental plan materialized so fast?

“One of the things that’s most important about this project is the tree selection,” said Julie Squires. The city should hire a certified and educated horticulturist, she said, “because, otherwise, we’ll be doing same thing in 50 years.”

“There should be a way for the community to vote,” said Julie Jaman, but “the staff seems to have it locked up.”

Others agreed local officials have moved too quickly; a more democratic process should be used here, some said.

Port Townsend Mayor Michelle Sandoval, who has served some 20 years on the City Council, spoke to that.

“People think this was a done deal and we didn’t have a lot of heartache over it,” she said, adding she and city officials, like other residents, admire the poplars’ beauty, especially as they change color in fall.

So “we are replanting. We are replanting for future generations,” Sandoval said.

Tuesday’s meeting is not the last one on the topic, both she and City Manager John Mauro added. They urged attendees to stay involved, and not just about the poplar issue.

“We discuss things every single week at the city meetings … they’re on the web just like Facebook is on the web.

“Democracy happens every single day.”

________

Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]


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