Local debate keeps growing over how to protect trees

By Debera Carlton Harrell
Seattle, WA (August 19, 2008)- A Western red cedar rises above the street, part of a lot slated for a development in the Roosevelt neighborhood. The tree, 90 feet high, has been clipped to make way for power lines. But despite its altered silhouette, arborists and others consider it an “exceptional” tree worth saving.


All things being equal, most “Roosies” would keep the tree at 6515 Brooklyn Ave. N.E. But it happens to be on a site that has long plagued the neighborhood, with blighted and run-down homes, at least one of which was a known crack house, recently bulldozed. It’s across from Roosevelt High School and near a planned light rail station. Neighbors say they want a mixed-use housing/retail building and applaud Brooklyn Court LLC developers who have listened to the community.
“The redevelopment of this and some other (unrelated) blighted properties known as Sisleyville is our highest priority,” said Jim O’Halloran, chairman of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association’s land-use committee, referring to controversial landowner Hugh Sisley. “This particular tree, it could kill a project we’re trying to make happen,” O’Halloran said.
The Roosevelt scenario is the latest twist on Tree City USA’s tree-protection saga. As Brooklyn Court LLC developers spend money on arborists and lawyers, awaiting city design review and permitting for a project the Roosevelt neighborhood supports, the four-story building with middle-income housing and street-level retail is centered on whether the cedar should be removed. “The cedar is an exceptional tree… I don’t feel private property owners have a right to cut down trees that are a community asset,” said arborist Michael Oxman, who is among those seeking a stronger city tree ordinance.
Tree controversies are alive in other areas of the city as well. At a time that groups ranging from Boy Scouts to the Seattle Storm are planting trees, many neighborhoods are crying foul over the threat of felled trees on private, school-district and even Washington Park Arboretum property.
A hearing Monday in King County Superior Court may determine the fate of 63 trees on Seattle Public Schools property, where the district hopes to expand Ingraham High School. Neighbors sued; last week Judge John Erlick barred the district from cutting the trees until Aug. 27 at the earliest. Sometime on or before Sept. 5, Maple Leaf residents expect to hear the outcome of an appeal they filed to block the removal of 40 large trees at Waldo Woods to make way for 39 luxury condos.
The Seattle City Council, which passed a tree-protection resolution last month, is awaiting legislation from the Department of Planning and Development that would strengthen current protections for city trees, particularly groves such as those targeted at Ingraham High and Waldo Woods. “I don’t know this (Roosevelt) particular site, but depending on where it is, it seems development could be conditioned on protecting the tree,” said Richard Conlin, the council president.
“We are really wanting to get an ordinance (from the planning department), particularly on the grove issue,” Conlin said. “It’s tricky when you’re dealing with private property, but it’s tricky with any property, really.” But David Miller, president of the Maple Leaf Community Council, said he wants the City Council to forge an emergency tree ordinance, saying the issue can no longer wait. “I’ve been working on this for two years, and we have yet to see a tree ordinance,” Miller said. “We need the mayor to step up. He needs to open up the discussion and get an interim emergency ordinance to happen.”
Part of the value of a tougher ordinance, Miller and others say, is that it would “get developers to think more creatively.” “I don’t think it matters who wants the development to happen or how good the development is,” Miller said. “When you’re analyzing the environmental impact of removing a tree, you can’t think about how much better things will be, such as after a sewage-treatment plant is built. Let’s figure out how to construct a development around the tree.”
Miller noted that the city’s tree canopy has diminished from 40 percent to 18 percent since the early 1970s. “If we’re going to be serious about tree canopy in this city, we’re going to have to come up with compromises — save a tree, though it diminishes the capacity of a site. Otherwise Seattle becomes a concrete wasteland — and is no longer the Emerald City.”
Oxman and others say the existing tree ordinance and the city’s tree inventory are 20 years out of date. Some landscape architects and arborists are pushing for an updated tree inventory, to find and identify specimens worth saving. Oxman can cite all the science, from drip lines to CRZ’s, or critical root zones. Trees, he said, make life worth living in an urban environment, from providing shelter for singing birds to filtering air pollution to controlling erosion and storm runoff.
Arborists are not convinced that replacing trees offers the same benefits, though others believe replacing one tree with many others would be more beneficial. “What are the ecological stewardship obligations of a community?” Oxman asks. “We receive benefits from trees- and we should be protecting them.”
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