By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
We have yet to get an incident number from SPD, though we requested it today.
City Attorney Pete Holmes, meantime, is expected to brief the City Council on the tree-cutting case behind closed doors on Monday.
That’s according to City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, with whom we spoke during a break in her second round of “district office hours” this afternoon in The Junction. The agenda for Monday’s weekly council “briefing” meeting ends with two separate items labeled only “executive session on pending or potential litigation” – executive session means it’s closed to the public.
Herbold also noted that she has called for a look at the current laws and penalties and whether they could be toughened, as has been called for in this citizen-initiated online petition.
In case you’re catching up, the tree cutting happened in January, when an unidentified citizen reported it to the city arborist, who is part of SDOT, which owns one of the two parcels involved. Then on February 5th, a lawyer representing one of the responsible parties – identifying his client only as a property owner on the 3200 block of 35th SW (which holds 13 privately owned parcels, according to county records) – sent this letter to Jesús Aguirre, Superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation (which owns the other parcel involved), headed “Disclosure of Tree Pruning / Cutting Work on City-Owned Properties,” offering to “work with Parks to rectify any damage that may have been done to city property in the course of this work.”
That offer included a restoration plan whose outline we requested and obtained from the City Attorney’s Office earlier this week, and included in our Wednesday followup.
But the tree-cutting investigation didn’t come to public light until Seattle Times reporter Daniel Beekman published a story one week ago tonight. His next story indicated the city apparently had not originally disclosed that they had known about this for so long.
We published stories on Saturday, Monday, and Wednesday, and now this one. Councilmember Herbold quickly jumped into the situation, visiting the site with City Attorney Holmes on Saturday.
The city apparently has not had direct contact with anyone involved, CAO spokesperson Kimberly Mills told us while replying to our latest questions today: “We’ve had contact only from one lawyer representing one client, so there has been no conversation from our end with any homeowners. That’s SPD’s job.”
Some commenters have wondered where Mayor Ed Murray stands on this (aside from the brief mention on Saturday). So we inquired with his office too. Via press secretary Jason Kelly, we received this statement:
“The City will get to the bottom of this wanton destruction of a critical natural area,” said Mayor Ed Murray. “This incident is much more than thoughtless vandalism of public property; cutting of these trees put this neighborhood at risk. After experiencing the wettest winter in Seattle history, we should all be aware that treed slopes protect homes from dangerous, life-threatening landslides. We must prosecute these perpetrators to the full extent of the law and ensure that no homeowner has a financial incentive to cut trees illegally.”
That financial incentive, of course, would have to do with the view. As we reported on Wednesday, Councilmember Herbold told us she’d learned the King County Assessor’s Office had received a request to revisit nearby properties. We went directly to that office to find out more about what was happening and also about how views figure into property assessments – early in the coverage of all this, there was clearly some confusion.
Assessor’s Office spokesperson Bailey Stober helped us get answers to our questions, including, from Assessor John Wilson: “In follow up to discovery of the tree cutting incident , I sent members of my residential appraisal team to revisit the neighborhood to verify and update property characteristics such as view codes for the affected properties. It is very important that changes in property characteristics are captured timely to ensure uniform property assessments and the equitable distribution of the property tax burden.”
How and when are views assessed? “We physically inspect all properties in the county at least once every six years to validate property characteristics and capture changes that occur over time. In cases where significant property characteristic changes occur during interim years, appraisal team members may revisit individual properties or neighborhoods. For instance when landslides affect properties or new construction occurs. Property owners can contact our office and we will evaluate the necessity whether to inspect in advance of the next scheduled neighborhood inspection.”
To clarify, though, they’re not being re-assessed for taxes paid in the current year: “State law is quite clear that Assessors may not retroactively revalue property unless to correct an error. It is helpful to understand that current year property taxes are based on property assessed values determined for the prior year. For example, the 2015 property assessment is based on property market values as of 1/1/2015 and is used to set the property tax amount that is billed and payable in 2016. Updates or changes to a property’s characteristics, if they affect a property’s value, will generally be captured during each year’s revaluation and reflected in the following year’s taxes.”
Our last question – how exactly do views factor into assessed property values? “We maintain an extensive set of data characteristics on each property in King County. These may be accessed online at kingcounty.gov/depts/assessor.aspx. During new construction of a residence, multi-family, or commercial/industrial property improvements, appraisers visit each property conducting an in-depth review of the specific features and characteristics of the buildings and improvements. Thereafter we regularly re-inspect the property (and neighborhood) to review characteristics on file, validate current status, and update changes if necessary. Regarding land, important property characteristics are views, topography, access to the property, and whether it is buildable if currently vacant. Views, like many property characteristics, do not always remain the same over the life of the property — they can improve, deteriorate, or just go away if a new structure is constructed on an adjacent property and now blocks the view. Washington State’s property tax laws anticipate this by requiring Assessors to maintain regular re-inspection programs.”
In the meantime, the major question remains what will happen to the persons responsible for destroying the trees on city-owned parcels 132403-9099 and 132403-9086 – and when. Lots of questions unanswered, and some unasked, as well.
One thing that appears to have been accomplished so far – a heightened awareness of damage and destruction done to public trees. Both in comments and e-mail, concerns about other publicly owned areas has come up; we’ll be following up on those too, as well as this.