Update: West Seattle side note in school-district tree tussle


Reading citywide-media coverage regarding the latest developments in Seattle Public Schools‘ plan to cut trees to make way for an Ingraham High School project, we were startled to see the reports featuring a line about alleged unauthorized district tree-cutting as Denny/Sealth construction/renovation work begins on the Chief Sealth HS campus. Certainly the West Seattle project has had more than its share of controversy, but we hadn’t heard about any tree trouble, so we started digging around. Here’s what we found out:

The citywide-media’s Denny/Sealth mentions (here and here) apparently came straight from a “Save the Trees” news release (read it here), without independent followup on exactly what was cut. Here’s what the news release said (in the middle of other text about the Ingraham project):

Last week they did a similar destructive bullying tactic at Denny Sealth School in West Seattle. They bulldozed down the trees there that were part of a DNS appeal hearing while the hearing was still going on – ending any effective appeal. They apologized for their “mistake” but the trees were gone.

Unable to find anything online about that appeal (DNS stands for “determination of nonsignificance”), first we checked with Save the Trees’ Steve Zemke, who posted the news release. He told us the appeal was brought by West Seattle-based school watchdog Chris Jackins.

We called Jackins and are still waiting to hear back. Meantime, we asked Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Patti Spencer what she could tell us about any Denny/Sealth tree trouble, and here’s her answer:

Here is my understanding of what the situation was/is: The contractor needed to put up a SILT fence to protect Longfellow Creek during construction. Putting up that fence necessitated trimming trees. I have been told that several branches were cut, and apparently there was one multi-trunk tree that needed to
have parts of the trunk trimmed to make way for the fence. The area cleared is 3 to 4 feet wide. The mistake happened because the contractor proceeded without authorization, which meant that the work was done before the SEPA ruling was given. The hearing examiner termed this a “minor mistake.” Our facilities team has taken steps to ensure that type of action does not occur again.

We’ve also asked her for information, by the way, on how to keep better tabs of such hearings, which do not appear to be posted on the district’s website (unlike, for example, the city Hearing Examiner, who has a webpage where you can see the hearing schedule – past as well as present/future). Meantime, we went over to the Longfellow Creek side of Sealth to see if we could find the exact site of this “trimming.” The fence in question is at the top of a steep, overgrown slope, stretching the length of the Sealth campus’s east edge:


That’s the southeastern side, photographed from the Thistle Street Greenspace side of its creek-bordering zone; further north, the corresponding area is inaccessible (or difficult to access). A backhoe is in action at the northeast corner of the school building, as shown in the photo atop this post, and tree branches can be seen in a pile nearby, though they don’t look like new cuttings:


We’ll let you know when we hear back from Chris Jackins. And more Denny/Sealth updates are expected at tomorrow night’s monthly meeting of the Westwood Neighborhood Council, 7 pm, Southwest Precinct meeting room; city parks superintendent Tim Gallagher is expected to be there to join in a discussion of the future of the current Denny site, once the new Denny is built and occupied on the Sealth campus and the old school is torn down. TUESDAY MORNING UPDATE: We spoke with Chris Jackins by phone very early this morning. We’ll write up details in a followup within a few hours, but we now have a copy of the hearing examiner’s decision from the appeal hearing, which was held at the Stanford Center (school district HQ) in Sodo on July 24, with the decision issued August 6. It includes an affirmation that it appears 10 trees were cut before the appeal was heard, potentially increasing the maximum projected tree removal for the project to about three dozen. The next step is that district superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson is to issue her decision on whether to accept the hearing examiner’s finding; Jackins says he’s still waiting for that decision, after which he would have three weeks to decide whether to challenge it. The district was represented by Richard Hill, a prominent Seattle land-use lawyer who in a side note also figured in a recent, significant West Seattle case — he represented the owner of the Satterlee House on Beach Drive, William Conner, in his challenge of the city Landmarks Board decision against his application to build three 3,000-square-foot homes on the house’s expansive front lawn.

11 Replies to "Update: West Seattle side note in school-district tree tussle"

  • Dave August 11, 2008 (9:39 pm)

    I live a couple of blocks from Sealth and received a letter from the City of Seattle the other day regarding a citizens panel they are setting up. It said something about the city seeking local citizen input regarding design changes which they are making to the Sealth/Denny project. One design change mentioned was the reduction of the number of spaces for on-site parking. Does anyone know anything about these proposed design changes? I am concerned that the city is planning on dumping a lot of the students parking needs on the local community as they have in other school locations.

  • John W. August 11, 2008 (10:53 pm)

    Actually this is not a design change but something the district has been planning for all along. This is not a city plan – the city is just doing the formality of a committee to approve the variance.
    Considering the city has done a lousy job with parking, like in our old pre-WS neighborhood (by NW Hospital) where the city so severely restricted hospital street parking that we sometimes could not park on our own street 5 blocks away without driving around until somebody left. I’m sure they’ll approve regardless of the outcry and the district facilities staff is counting on that.
    Parking was discussed several times during the development but at Sealth that was a minor issue compared to the lack of an educational and/or security plan.
    The auditorium remodel theoretically will increase the number of events and thus overflow parking into the neighborhood. Considering what I know from my time at Ballard HS and that parking situation (students only allowed to park in the neighborhood and staff needed permits in the on campus parking) this will severely impact the neighborhood by Sealth (although I guess the old Denny site neighbors will be ok with it). If you’re concerned sign up for the committee to try and limit that permit exemption. Neither the city or district has cared about the neighborhood yet but it’s worth a try.
    The district is also going to seek a variance on the 37 foot height limit – I don’t know that will impact the community as much as the parking, but some people may be concerned about that.

  • Valkyrie August 11, 2008 (10:58 pm)

    Could you post the entire letter from the city? As a Sealth teacher, I would be interested in knowing how many parking spaces they plan to reduce. I know that we’d already lost about 90 spaces.

  • WSB August 11, 2008 (11:20 pm)

    I have seen the parking space numbers while covering previous meetings … will see if I can dig them up. Meantime, was this the same “letter from the city”? This one has been sent around on various mailing lists; we paraphrased it here in a report the other day about Denny updates:
    >>The Department of Neighborhoods (DON) is forming a Departure Advisory Committee for two (2) zoning departures or variances needed for the Denny Sealth project. The departures are required because we are doing a school project on land zoned as residential. We will be requesting the departures for building height and parking. We expect that Committee would meet for 1 meeting in the evening after work for about 2 hours.

    DON is requesting letters of intent for people interested in being a member of the Committee (please see attached notice). You can submit via email (thao.tran@seattle.gov), mail (see attached notice), or fax (206.233.5142). I would request that you do so via fax or email by August 8, 2008 as we would like to form the committee at weeks end and set a meeting date (probably in the next 2 or 3 weeks).

    The letter of intent should be about two paragraphs. The first paragraph should introduce yourself and tell DON if you are a resident, how long and where you live in the community. You also tell them if you represent any special groups (parent, community, neighbor, business, or district) or live with 600 feet of the schools. The second paragraph should state why you want to be on the committee, how you intend to contribute on the committee and your familiarity with the Denny Sealth project. << (It was from project manager Robert Evans) -- TR

  • WSB August 11, 2008 (11:25 pm)

    I found the reference I was looking for – at the SEPA meeting back in April. 120 fewer parking spaces when Denny/Sealth is done, compared to current Denny plus Sealth. Second to last paragraph:

  • Dave August 12, 2008 (7:38 am)

    Yes, the DON letter paraphrased above appears to be the one I received. It did not contain any specifics about the variances, but looking at the numbers above, it appears the decision has already been made. Why do they need a community advisory committee at all? Just to rubber stamp the changes to save face when the complaints start rolling in? I only received my letter this week which it appears is after the deadline to submit a letter of interest anyway. IMHO this really stinks, as Sealth has only historically had approx. 120 spaces (estimate on my part), with only a few additional ones at Denny. I have off street parking for my household, but it’s the daily street parking and litter out front I am dreading.

  • WSB August 12, 2008 (9:21 am)

    Chris Jackins called me back very early this morning and I will be writing a followup within a few hours. In the meantime, he also kindly dropped off a folder of documentation relating to his appeal (including photocopies of the tree damage photos) and that includes the findings from the appeal. The sections that mention parking include: “The checklist indicates that currently there are 197 parking spaces at Sealth and five at Denny. … When finished, there would be 115 spaces for Sealth and 60 for the new Denny school at the Sealth site.” Then there’s a passage about increased demand, and also some analysis about changes at the sports complex across the street, all with the same bottom line as I noted above, a 120-car daytime overflow projected, and a district declaration that “The surrounding streets can accommodate the forecast 120-car daytime overflow,” noting “There are approximately 374 on-street parking spaces within that area. The overall average utilization midmorning in the area was 51 cars …”

  • Charlie Mas August 13, 2008 (12:39 pm)

    Okay, here’s a weird question. What if the District doesn’t get their variance on the parking? Then what? Will they have to commit some portion of the old Denny site to off-site parking? Will they have to find someplace to accommodate the parking on the Sealth campus?

    Was that count of 51 mid-morning cars done on a school day? Does the District expect the enrollment at Denny and Sealth to go up, go down, or remain the same? Will there be parking for the sports facilities that will go on the old Denny site?

    Also, what is the point of having parking space requirements if the City consistently and reliably grants variances? And where does the District get the arrogance to PLAN on winning a variance?

  • WSB August 13, 2008 (12:49 pm)

    We’ll be watching, of course … meantime we are still writing our followup, to be posted on the site hopefully within an hour. Talked to Ron English late yesterday, on our way to the Westwood Neighborhood Council meeting, and I am still rather startled that it turns out these appeal hearings are not publicly posted ANYWHERE. The original SEPA checklist is the subject of a public notice, but if anything is challenged, and a hearing scheduled, no notice to anyone but the party/ies of record. – TR

  • Valkyrie August 13, 2008 (2:13 pm)

    One of the problems I foresee is that administration will not be able to monitor activity of automobiles on side streets as they are in the school parking lot.

  • The Seattle Syndrome August 14, 2008 (3:34 pm)

    This is…unbelievable.

    Issue 1: Don’t cut old, rotten trees that are full of termites in order to have a school foundation and piping system that isn’t torn apart by roots. Save the environment. Planting more trees after the fact isn’t good enough, even though there will be more than before.

    Issue 2: We refuse to give up our cars to save the environment. We love to fund middle-eastern countries and have a petroleum needle in our veins. We have no problem whatsoever with teaching our teenagers that there is no other way to get around town than by driving a car a whopping 4 miles. The idea of discussing a program of offering discount/free bus passes to students is a waste of time in comparison to the discussion of trees – trees that serve the purpose of compensating for the fact that we won’t give up our cars.

    What’s wrong with us? We don’t need that many parking spaces. It is gluttony and you know it. We need more bus service and bus stops. The city will listen if we demand it.

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