Twenty-five years ago, timber giant Weyerhaeuser designed its own 3,000-acre, tree-heavy planned community in the South Sound.
What could go wrong?
Turns out, quite a bit.
“They bamboozled the locals,” said DuPont City Councilman Michael Gorski, who is outspoken in his frustration with the company’s choice to line the city streets mostly with sweetgum trees.
The deciduous hardwood is fast-growing and known for its fall color, just what builders want to help sell their pop-up housing developments. But if planted in the wrong soil or in narrow planting strips — as was done in DuPont — the tree’s roots spread horizontally, not vertically.
It’s not known whether the developers knew the trees would cause problems, but Gorski said city leaders at the time put too much trust in Weyerhaeuser.
“You expect a tree company to know what type of trees to plant,” he said. “I would counter they should have known better, and they did know better.”
Now mature, the roots are buckling sidewalks throughout the city — a problem city officials say is a public safety hazard.
So far, the city has applied asphalt patches and shaved the raised concrete. But that’s not good enough for the City Council.
“As a council member, I don’t want this to be a problem in 20 years that another council has to solve,” Councilman Andy Estep said.
City leaders think they have a solution, one that will cost $2 million.
In 2017, the City Council will debate where to find the money and whether to make homeowners pay for repairs in front of their homes.
BUILDING A VISION
Weyerhaeuser — a 116-year-old timber company that knows trees — bought about 3,000 acres from the DuPont Co. in 1976, after DuPont closed its munitions manufacturing plant that operated in the city for 70 years.
At the time, DuPont’s population was about 800.
The timber company razed the industrial plant’s buildings, decontaminated the land of pollutants and presented its vision to city leaders for Northwest Landing, a planned community with residential, commercial and industrial uses.
By the early 1990s, development began and continued into the early 2000s. Today, about 9,300 people live in the 5.8-square-mile city.
Some at the city say the trees have been a problem since they were planted — in some cases 25 years ago — but the issue manifested about a decade ago when the city’s sidewalks started rising and cracking.
That’s when the City Council started talking about the problem.
Initial city estimates showed it would cost $18 million to replace trees and repair broken sidewalks. That’s more than the city’s entire 2017 budget, which is $15.5 million.
6,000 Number of trees that need attention
Seeking additional funding, the city reached out to Weyerhaeuser for help in 2014.
Former Mayor Michael Grayum wrote a letter inviting Weyerhaeuser to partner with the city to maintain the urban forest.
He appealed to the company, saying its financial assistance and expertise would extend the company’s “legacy of establishing a beautiful, sustainable and vibrant city.”
Despite its role in transforming DuPont from a sleepy company town into one of the South Sound’s fastest-growing cities, the company did not respond.
Undeterred by the initial cold shoulder, current Mayor Michael Courts said he plans to extend another invitation to the company. He declined to comment on Weyerhaeuser’s initial lack of response.
Asked about the continuing problem, a Weyerhaeuser spokeswoman referred a News Tribune reporter to Quadrant Homes, noting the company sold its real estate arm to Quadrant’s parent company TRI Pointe Homes in 2014.
A spokeswoman for Quadrant said the company was unaware of the problem until a reporter’s call. The company did not commit to do anything but will look into it, she said.
In a statement, Quadrant president Ken Krivanec noted the city had to sign off on the permits and development plans for Northwest Landing, which included landscaping plans.
“Throughout the development of the Northwest Landing master plan, Quadrant worked closely with the city,” Krivanec said in the statement “(The) infrastructure and landscaping that is installed were required by plans approved and inspected by the city of DuPont.”
ASSESSING THE DAMAGE
The city identified nearly 6,000 trees — almost all the trees in Northwest Landing — that need attention.
Not all of the trees are sweetgum with their troublesome roots. Still, problems remain.
In some cases, the species of tree used is fine, but the trees were planted with their root bags intact, restricting their roots and making them potentially unstable. This fall, at least four such trees toppled from moderate winds because of weak roots, Gorski said.
The initial price tag of $18 million to remove and replace the trees and fix the sidewalks isn’t something a city the size of DuPont can “even begin to tackle,” City Administrator Ted Danek said.
City officials searched for more affordable options and landed on a $2 million solution that includes growing trees from seedlings and using a piece of machinery called the Big Sidewalk Sucker.
The estimate covers all costs associated with fixing the problem, including hiring temporary employees whose only job would be to fix the sidewalks and address the problem trees over two to four years.
The $2 million is a lot of money for a city with an $8 million general fund, but “it’s something we can get our arms around,” Courts said.
The city’s volunteer tree board proposed growing trees on city property after learning the city paid $500 a tree to replace a block-long stretch of trees on Palisade Boulevard.
“You expect a tree company to know what type of trees to plant.”
DuPont Councilman Michael Gorski
“I said, ‘That is ridiculous, we can do this so much less expensively,’ ” tree board president Kyle McCreary said.
The five-member board bought seedlings of seven species for less than a dollar each and is growing 474 trees to one day be planted in the city. The new species include mountain ash, Japanese maples and midland hawthorn.
The tree board also worked with the city on new regulations that govern which trees can be planted in the city to prevent this from happening again.
As for the Big Sidewalk Sucker, a resident told the City Council about it, and Public Works Director Gus Lim determined it would work in the city.
The machine uses suction to lift concrete slabs from the ground so work can be done underneath. It will allow the city to save more trees and minimize the amount of sidewalk that must be replaced, Danek said.
Instead of ripping out trees and tearing up the sidewalk, the city will use the machine to lift the panels, shave the tree roots and install a barrier to keep the roots from spreading back under the sidewalk.
The concrete panels will be returned, and the sidewalks once again will be flat.
“We thought early on in the process that a lot of those trees would have to go entirely,” Councilman Estep said. “I’m sort of excited about how some of those trees can be saved.”
WHO PAYS FOR IT?
With a solution in place, the next step is determining who pays for the work: the city or homeowners.
Work on city-owned property is a “no-brainer” and will be paid for by the city, Courts said.
Whether residents will be asked to pay for work in front of their homes, which city code has required for decades, hasn’t been decided.
“There are people, even some on council, that say it’s the homeowner’s issue. Period. End of discussion,” Courts said.
For 63 years, city code has included a requirement that property owners maintain the sidewalk and planting strip in front of their property. Though the requirement has long been on the books, the city has been inconsistent in enforcing it.
The City Council updated this section of code in 2015 to remove ambiguity and make it clear when a sidewalk needs to be repaired. The update was prompted because of the sidewalk problems.
Included in the update was creation of a citywide sidewalk inspection program. Each neighborhood will be inspected on a rotating basis. If problems are found, property owners will be asked to repair them, according to the update.
The council approved the update 4-2, but didn’t reach consensus on who should pay for the current repairs.
Whatever happens, Courts said, he wants a decision “I know I can live morally with.”
“As a city we should fix this together. I don’t think the homeowners should be responsible for it. None of them.”
Eric Kaplan, DuPont resident
“Certainly everybody is sensitive as to the cost of the entire project and the effect on adjacent homeowners or property owners,” Estep said.
DuPont resident Eric Kaplan, who spoke against the code update in 2015, said this month that when he moved to the city, he was never told he was responsible for the upkeep of the sidewalk and trees in front of his home.
Residents shouldn’t be forced to replace trees wrongly planted by a developer and later maintained by the city, Kaplan said.
“As a city, we should fix this together,” he said. “I don’t think the homeowners should be responsible for it. None of them.”
One voice that has remained silent is the Northwest Landing residential and commercial owners associations’ board of directors. That could change next year if the City Council tries to make property owners pay for repairs, said Larry Ackerman, director of the residential owners association.
Whatever happens, Courts said, “this is going to be an emotional issue.”
The mayor is looking for money in the city’s existing budget. He wants to know whether he could take $1 million from the stormwater reserve fund because “trees are an integral part of the stormwater system.”
He also hopes Quadrant or Weyerhaeuser will help.
Councilman Gorski is skeptical their response will change from two years ago.
“I fully expect that they are going to avoid any culpability in this,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is they planted trees that caused damage.”