(UPDATED 5:53 PM with comment from tree/lot’s owner)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Barely three blocks as the crow flies from where the illegal cutting of 100+ trees sparked a regional uproar, the potential legal cutting of a single tree is inspiring a quiet revolt.
Among the leaders – a neighborhood 9-year-old.
This tree and its situation are quite different from the now-notorious, deciduous-tree-dominated “clearcut” on public land in the Duwamish Head Greenbelt. This is an evergreen, on private land, a small lot over which it towers, a Ponderosa Pine labeled an “exceptional tree” by city standards, even in the arborist report for the proposal to build a house on the ~3000-square-foot site where it grows, at 3036 39th SW.
The city is currently in a comment period for the project, but as a standalone single-family-house proposal, it didn’t hit our radar until reader Catherine Darwin posted about it in the WSB Forums, starting the topic “Large Ponderosa Pine on 39th SW.”
Catherine wrote, in part:
While Seattle needs to support density growth, that should certainly be balanced with ecological concerns. This tree houses an owl, yearly hibernating ladybugs, and eagles circle it searching for crows’ eggs, just to mention some of the wildlife and habitats involved. It is part of the urban forest which makes Seattle such a green and lovely space to want to live in.
Moreover, this majestic tree is a legacy we have been given and should pass on to generations to come.
Numerous studies have shown the importance of trees from reduced pressure on water processing plants, to offsetting the effects of carbon dioxide and reducing greenhouse effect; and trees affect the mood and community pride of residents.
While city code allows for this tree to be cut down for development, I feel it is a shame to lose this towering tree and all the habitat it provides. Is there anything we neighbors can do?
Then a letter from Lisa landed in the WSB inbox. And she told us about Myla, with whom we spoke Monday night at her home across the street from the tree.
Before we go further, here’s what’s happening.
This notice was in the May 26th Land Use Information Bulletin, officially informing any and all interested that an application had been filed to build a two-story house and garage on this site, which is adjacent to and co-owned with the house at 3038 39th SW. As you’ll see in the notice, there is one out-of-the-ordinary factor – the project requires a “Special Exception to allow a new single-family dwelling unit on a lot less than 3,200 sq. ft.” According to the site-plan document on file – which notes that two “exceptional trees” would be removed – the lot is approximately 3,166 sf. The file also includes a letter with what is described as a “preliminary” interpretation by the department that this part of the site is a legal buildable lot – while there’s only been one house on the 6,300-sf site, it’s technically designated as Lots 14-15 – but it also notes that the decision isn’t final until a building permit is issued.
As for the tree, the WSB Forums discussion, Zephyr wondered how an acknowledged “exceptional tree” could be on the chopping block. We took that question to city spokesperson Bryan Stevens, who speaks for what was the city Department of Planning and Development:
When development is proposed, an exceptional tree or trees can only be removed if it can be demonstrated that tree preservation creates a substantial limitation on the development potential of the property. Our tree protection rules even allow a proposal to project into a required property line setback if this can allow for tree preservation and reasonable development potential. If tree removal is allowed, then tree replacement is required to, upon maturity, result in a canopy cover equal to what was removed. See the specific code language below:
25.11.060 – Tree protection on sites undergoing development in Single-family and Residential Small Lot zones.
A. Exceptional Trees.
1. The Director may permit a tree to be removed only if:
a. the maximum lot coverage permitted on the site according to SMC Title 23, the Land Use Code, cannot be achieved without extending into the tree protection area or into a required front and/or rear yard to an extent greater than provided for in subsection A2 of this section; or
b. avoiding development in the tree protection area would result in a portion of the house being less than fifteen (15) feet in width.
2. Permitted extension into front or rear yards shall be limited to an area equal to the amount of the tree protection area not located within required yards. The maximum projection into the required front or rear yard shall be fifty (50) percent of the yard requirement.
3. If the maximum lot coverage permitted on the site can be achieved without extending into either the tree protection area or required front and/or rear yards then no such extension into required yards shall be permitted.
Tree Protection Code
25.11.090 – Tree replacement and site restoration.
A. Each exceptional tree and tree over two (2) feet in diameter that is removed in association with development in all zones shall be replaced by one or more new trees, the size and species of which shall be determined by the Director; the tree replacement required shall be designed to result, upon maturity, in a canopy cover that is at least equal to the canopy cover prior to tree removal. Preference shall be given to on-site replacement. When on-site replacement cannot be achieved, or is not appropriate as determined by the Director, preference for off-site replacement shall be on public property.
B. No tree replacement is required if the (1) tree is hazardous, dead, diseased, injured or in a declining condition with no reasonable assurance of regaining vigor as determined by a tree care professional, or (2) the tree is proposed to be relocated to another suitable planting site as approved by the Director.
The arborist report on file for this site, dated last December, makes no assessment of the Ponderosa Pine’s age, only its size (42.5-inch diameter at the prescribed measuring point) and condition (the arborist pronounced that to be “good,” unlike the other tree on the site that was assessed as “exceptional”).
So now – meet Myla, a third-grader at Fairmount Park Elementary.
She and her friend Violetta made the sign she’s holding. She has been going door to door with neighbor Lisa. That’s who told her about the building plan for the site.
“I thought that’s really really really really really bad,” she said. So she and Lisa have been knocking on doors asking people to comment on the proposal. (The online file shows 44 public-comment letters dated through Monday.) She was planning to send a comment, too. This is the first time she’s gotten involved in activism – aside from a birthday party at which she asked guests to support the Humane Society instead of bringing her gifts. She says she doesn’t want the tree “to be chopped down because it looks really pretty where it is … a lot of animals live in there and I would be really, really sad. … The tree’s been there for a really long time and it’s really old … it would take a long time to grow another tree like that.”
Also on Tuesday night, after reading the WSB Forums post about the tree and going to see it, Sam cc’d us on a comment to the city, reading in part:
What I saw last nite in the sunset hour was a handsome and beautiful tree, tall and majestic, accomplished too, given its proud survival amongst the elements, man made and not. The tree is lovely beyond description and renders a voice in the sky I have rarely witnessed amongst all the Ponderosa Pines I have seen and photographed in the course of my life. As a woman whose Mother was Alaskan Native and Father who was Asian, I have seen quite a few pine trees from Baja to the Arctic and back again across to the other side of the Mississippi. …
… With so few other pine trees in the vicinity, I feel strongly about this tree’s life. I believe it is a life we need to respect and care for until the tree itself reaches its natural conclusion. I’m a photographer/artist and I have been photographing trees most of my life. Only in the recent past have I realized that trees dominate my archive of film and prints. It is a self-realization I have come to embrace with great affection.
Trees know everything. They are librarians, they are authors and artists of theatre. They create rings in life at their very core that can tell us far more than we can possibly comprehend by simple examination. Within the context of this Ponderosa Pine’s neighborhood, someday it will tell the story to the generation’s after us about what and how we weathered the climate changes and how or if we remained stewards of the soil, water and air during our lifetime. I can only hope with my whole heart, the City of Seattle can motivate all bodies involved, to see this as an opportunity to cultivate and not terminate. Let it be. I am no one. I’m just a voter, a resident, an artist, a person who calls Seattle home. Where I live, where anyone lives, is the place they commit to become Native to, and I want to put in a good word for my Ponderosa Pine Tree neighbor.
We have a message out to the site’s owners to ask if there’s anything they’d like the community to know. Meantime, if you have any comment on the project, pro/con/otherwise, can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org – reference 3036 39th SW and land-use application 3024037; the comment period has been extended to June 22nd.
ADDED 5:53 PM: Clifford Low, owner of the tree site and the house next door, has replied to our request for comment:
We are building an undersized 2 story home. The tree will need to be removed in that a home could not be built there without removing it. We feel there is also a severe housing crisis in Seattle and this outweighs the desire to retain this tree. We look forward to providing a home for someone to enjoy the neighborhood, hopefully a future friend to Myla.