(UPDATED 4:45 PM with comment from lawyer for two of the people the city is suing)
(April WSB photo – south end of area where trees were cut)
12:04 PM: Last week, City Councilmember Lisa Herbold told the 34th District Democrats that she’d learned the City Attorney’s Office would have something to say this week about last winter’s illegal tree-cutting in West Seattle’s Duwamish Head Greenbelt.
Here it is:
The Seattle Times just broke the news that the city has filed lawsuits “seeking more than $1.6 million in combined damages and fines.”
We’re following up with the City Attorney’s Office and checking court files.
12:15 PM: We’ve obtained City Attorney Pete Holmes‘s statement from his office:
City Attorney Pete Holmes: “Earlier this year, the City learned of unpermitted improper tree cutting on City property in West Seattle near the 3200 block of 35th Ave. SW. Today, the City filed two lawsuits, naming people the City believes were involved in the tree cutting. The property is in an environmentally critical area on a steep slope. Approximately 150 trees of varying sizes, including many big-leaf maples and Scouler’s willows, were felled.
“My office has been involved in the City’s response. We launched an investigation to assess the extent of damage and identify the responsible parties. To that end, we retained a consulting arborist to assess the damage and prepare a comprehensive restoration plan.
“No one has yet come forward to give the City the full story of what happened despite SPD’s best efforts and extensive investigation. However, we are satisfied that we now know enough to proceed with civil lawsuits. We expect to learn that additional people, beyond those named in the lawsuits, were involved with the cutting as the suits progress. Between the lawsuits, the City seeks over $1.6 million in damages and fines. The City seeks relief on several grounds, including timber trespass, damage to land, trespass, negligence, environmentally critical areas violations, violations of the parks code and violations of the city’s tree and vegetation management in public places code.
“On its damages theories, the City generally alleges that the defendants and/or their agents cut down trees on City property without permission when they should have known better. The extensive tree cutting damaged the trees and the underlying land. On its code violation theories, because the cutting took place on City property and some occurred in City right of way, the cutters or their employers were required to obtain a number of permits before they cut any trees. No permits were issued to authorize the cutting and penalties and fines are therefore appropriate.
“The SPD criminal investigation of this matter is ongoing, and it is possible that SPD will refer this matter to the King County Prosecutor or my office in the future for potential criminal prosecution.”
We also have the court documents and are going through them for additional details. More to come …
12:27 PM: Two suits are filed. The first one, involving “the northern site” (off 35th), names Stanley Harrelson and Mary Harrelson, who are residents next to one of the cut zones, and Martin Riemer and Karrie Riemer, who live across the street to the east from the Harrelsons. That suit also names Forrest Bishop and John Russo, who the city alleges “were hired by the Harrelsons and Riemers to cut trees on city property located adjacent and/or across from (theirs).” The same suit also names “Defendants John and Jane Does 1-10 (who) may have retained Bishop, Russo, or others to cut trees on (two city parcels) or may themselves have cut trees on those parcels.”
(added) This suit alleges that “55 trees 6 inches in caliper or greater were cut down on the Parcels in Exhibit 1 Area A (which) are located in an environmentally critical area that contains steep slopes and landslide-prone areas. None of Defendants sought permission from any City department to cut trees on the Parcels. The cutting of trees increased the likelihood of landslides on the Parcels, and thereby damaged the land itself.” It alleges six “causes of action”:
*Damage to land
*Violations of the Environmentally Critical Areas Code
*Unauthorized use of park property
The damages sought in this suit are listed as:
… a principal judgment against Defendants, jointly and severally, including treble damages of $678,180 on the City’s timber trespass claim or in such other amount as may be proven at trial; penalties in the amount of $275,000 for cutting down 55 trees of six inches or more in diameter and an additional $500 for each tree cut …
… as well as other costs including legal fees and “enforcement costs.”
The suit involving “the southern site” (off City View) names Kostas Kyrimis and Linda Kyrimis, as well as “defendants Jane and John Does 1-14 (who) resided at and owned property within a two-block radius of the intersection of 35th Ave SW and SW Hinds Street and had views that were previously impaired by trees … (and) Defendants Jane and John Does 15-20 (who) were hired by the Kyrimises and/or Jane and John Does 1-14 to cut trees on property owned by the City …”
(added) This suit alleges that “72 trees over 6 inches in caliper” were cut in the area involved and makes the same allegations as the other suit, that no permission was sought, and that damage included the increased likelihood of landslides on the steep slopes.
Along with the same six “causes” as the northern-area lawsuit (listed above), this one adds a seventh:
*Tree and vegetation management in public places
And the damages sought in this suit, along with various costs such as enforcement and attorneys’ fees:
… A principal judgment against Defendants, jointly and severally, including treble damages of $362,760 on the City’s timber trespass claim or in such other amount as may be proven at trial; penalties in the amount of $360,000 for cutting down 72 trees over six inches in caliper and an additional $500 for each tree cut pursuant to SMC 25.09.460.A; land restoration costs …
We’ll add any comment we get from those targeted in these two lawsuits.
1:32 PM: Councilmember Herbold’s statement:
“I thank the City Attorney’s Office for filing two civil lawsuits this morning to address the illegal cutting of 150 trees in West Seattle earlier this year. I appreciate the use of a full range of the legal remedies available for civil suits, including timber trespass, which allows for 3x damages.
“The $1.6 million total in damages and fines sought by the City speaks to the seriousness of the claims. The damages and penalties must be significant enough to deter this kind of activity in the future, so that those with financial means don’t see unauthorized tree cutting as a cost-effective way to increase their views and property values.
“These trees played an important role in maintaining soil stability in an environmentally critical area, and lessened the risk of landslides onto a major arterial, SW Admiral Way. They also helped maintain air quality by absorbing carbon—an important issue in West Seattle, which sits adjacent to SODO and the Duwamish industrial area.
“I understand the Seattle Police Department’s criminal investigation is ongoing. My hope is that the Department will eventually be able to establish probable cause for pursuing criminal charges. However, I appreciate the difficulty they face, given that persons believed to be involved are declining to cooperate with investigators, and the legal standard needed to establish probable cause for criminal charges and to prove those charges beyond a reasonable doubt.”
ADDED 4:45 PM: Just received a statement from Clayton Graham, lawyer for two of the people the city is suing:
We are disappointed by the City Attorney’s decision to file the lawsuit today. Our clients, Stan and Mary Harrelson, deeply regret the tree cutting which happened next to their property. At no point did our clients request, or condone, the extent of the work that was done by the contractor.
The Harrelsons have acknowledged their role in this mistake but the City has been non-responsive to our attempts to reach a settlement in this matter. We believe the damages sought in the suit are excessive, given our clients’ limited role in the cutting that took place. While the lawsuit claims that none of the homeowners has come forward with the full story, our clients have fully cooperated with the City’s efforts since they, themselves, disclosed this work to the City early this year, and hired a former City of Seattle arborist to develop a restoration plan. The Harrelsons remain ready and willing to work with the City to remedy this matter.
We had published a statement from Graham in this March 28th story on behalf of his then-unidentified clients, saying they and also-then-unidentified neighbors had “hired a landscaping business to top and prune some trees to improve the view from their respective residences” and that his clients had come back from a trip to find out the landscapers had gone beyond their mandate.
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