Everett struggles to write rules on cutting trees

EVERETT — How many people does it take to chop down a tree?

If you live in Everett, it might take an arborist, a geotechnical engineer and a biologist — plus a guy with an ax.

At the moment, it’s illegal to cut trees or even prune them in “critical areas,” those places that are environmentally sensitive or prone to landslides.

Homeowners who cut trees in these areas without the city’s permission face thousands of dollars in fines.

Everett has many streams, wetlands and steep slopes that are considered critical areas. The city is required by the state to have laws that protect these areas.

That’s led to some frustrated property owners who buy homes for the views and then watch them disappear behind a blockade of alders and maples.

In a few cases every year, people take matters into their own hands and are caught. Fines typically range from $1,000 to $10,000.

In one case, homeowners who went onto someone else’s property to cut down trees and improve their views also had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in restoration fees after a landslide.

City staff are trying to find a happy median. But they’re finding it’s not easy.

In order to adhere to state mandates, the city can’t simply create a one-size-fits all rule book for property owners, explained Allan Giffen, Everett’s Planning and Community Development director.

Instead, an early proposal under development suggests homeowners who want to cut down a tree hire an arborist, geotechnical engineer and a biologist. All those experts are necessary because each property is different.

Property owners might also have to pay process fees and staff costs for field inspections.

To deter people from taking matters into their own hands, the proposal suggests steep fines: $1,500 per violation plus $1,000 a tree.

Giffen hastened to point out this draft is just that.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do on this one. We want a system that is more manageable,” he said.

The city must make rules based on “best available science.” But even that’s not always clear, Giffen said.

His staff poised questions to the Department of Ecology and sometimes received conflicting answers based on who in the state they were asking.

Property owners from Harbor Lane, which sits on a hill overlooking the waterfront, showed up at a planning meeting earlier this month to urge the city to come up with a solution — quickly.

The last time the matter was considered by the Planning Commission was two years ago.

“My trees are growing faster by the minute while I talk,” Paul Dennis said. “If you wait another 10 years, I’ll be dead.”

Last August, the city hired consultant GeoEngineers of Redmond to help figure out how other communities handle this issue.

Rather than a comprehensive report, the city received a list of websites and a table that showed some comparisons in local ordinances. The bill for 32 hours of work: $5,528.

Giffen now has his own staff working on the matter. “My biggest frustration is it took them forever and ever,” he said.

Other governments handle the issue in different ways.

Mukilteo, for instance, allows land owners to prune trees in critical areas and to remove certain kinds of deciduous trees, including alders.

Unincorporated Snohomish County doesn’t allow pruning or removal of trees in areas prone to landslides. Trees can be pruned around streams and wetlands.

Giffen said his department hopes to have a firmer draft back in front of the Planning Commission in about six months.

The city’s planning department has a map of critical areas online and at City Hall, 2930 Wetmore Ave.

The critical areas ordinance is also available online at the city’s website.

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com

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