Beginning nearly 30 years ago in the Innis Arden neighborhood of Shoreline, homeowners were guaranteed unimpeded views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula. They also had the right to petition a neighbor to remove trees that block that view.
Fast forward to today, as the city of Shoreline is in the process of revising its tree code to improve the environmental quality of life. Trees absorb stormwater runoff, provide economic and aesthetic improvement, and absorb carbon dioxide that causes global warming.
However, these two viewpoints are currently at loggerheads with each other.
Several aspects of the city’s proposal do not sit well with some members of the Innis Arden community. Namely, the city aims to maintain the current amount of tree cover while increasing to 40 percent the total tree cover over time. In addition, it plans to implement a system of credits that prescribes how many trees a private lot should have. And finally, it would require that a tree greater than 4 inches in diameter at breast height have a permit before it can be removed.
“The Board of Innis Arden feels that this is a regulatory scheme that is onerous, costly and compliance with it is extremely difficult,” said Mike Jacobs, Innis Arden homeowners board president. “It seems pretty arbitrary too. Where did this 40 percent figure come from?”
Nancy Rust, chair of the Tree Commission, said the 40 percent goal was based on a recommendation that American Forestry, the nation’s oldest nonprofit citizens conservation organization, made and is the suggested average for the Pacific Northwest.
“This is just a goal and is not expected in the immediate future,” Rust said. “It might take 10 years before it is met. Right now we would just like to see no net loss of tree canopy.”
Rust also explained that the revision requiring a permit to remove trees greater than four inches would help maintain the existing tree canopy. It is currently required that a tree that is removed be replaced by a number of smaller trees that are protected from removal for three years. But some species of trees do not grow wider in three years than the current 8-inch requirement for conifers and 12-inch requirement for deciduous trees, and could be removed after three years.
For instance, native dogwoods and madrona trees rarely grow to the point to be considered significant and may be planted in place of significant trees and removed three years later, resulting in loss of total canopy.
The number and size of trees to replace a significant tree, as well as the total number and size of trees required on a lot, would be determined by a crediting system. This would require a total of 45 credits’ worth of trees be maintained per acre, with the number of credits determined by the sizes of trees.
“The bigger the tree, the more credit given,” Rust said. “This gives more incentives to save bigger trees.”
However, big trees have been the ones creating a stir in Innis Arden. In 1981, a tree height amendment was added to the community’s view covenant, mandating that trees be no taller than the owner’s rooflines. If so, an uphill neighbor can petition for an offending tree to be pruned, topped or brought down in order to preserve views.
Peter Eglick, the Innis Arden’s outside counselor, said in a recent letter to the City Council that “while it is beyond dispute in light of judicial decisions extending over 25 years that views… are integral to Innis Arden, the (Tree Code) proposals persist in refusing to acknowledge view preservation as a factor in tree regulation.”
Eglick cited the economic benefits of views for the residents of Innis Arden, in that views “substantially” enhance property values and noted the undermining effect trees have with the enjoyment of views.
But the other side would argue that trees bring a different kind of value to property owners and the community as a whole. For instance, the mitigation of stormwater by trees is a cheap alternative to infrastructure to deal with runoff problems.
But how can these differing viewpoints be reconciled? Rust suggested that there are options for Innis Arden residents to work within the Tree Code. Although the crediting system promotes taller trees, a number of smaller trees would also fulfill requirements.
“They could still cut trees under the proposed Tree Code and could replace them with smaller trees that don’t grow as tall,” Rust said. “Trees like shore pines, mountain hemlocks and vine maples.”
Nikolaj Lasbo is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.