FOLLOWUP: City grants ‘special exception’ land-use permit to build house where huge Admiral tree stands

(June WSB photo)

Four months ago, we reported on an Admiral neighborhood’s hopes of saving a huge Ponderosa Pine tree that is on a site where its new owner wants to build a house.

Getting a land-use permit for the proposal at 3036 39th SW [map] was dependent on getting a “special exception” from the city, allowing a house on a lot smaller than 3,200 square feet..

Today’s Land Use Information Bulletin includes this notice of the city’s decision to grant the exception.

You can read the full decision here; it doesn’t address the tree, except to say “The site includes an Exceptional Tree as defined in SMC 25.11. Removal of the tree has been identified in building permit application 6513178. Removal of the tree will be reviewed under the building permit application.” The decision does refer back to a letter the city issued to the owner early this year, with a preliminary version of the decision finalized here, saying “The City has determined that the property qualifies as a
separate legal building site under exceptions to the minimum lot area requirement set forth in SMC 23.44.010.B.1 (opinion letter dated January 5, 2016).”

At the time of our June report, the parcel’s owner Cliff Low told WSB, “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.” An arborist’s report puts the tree’s trunk diameter at three and a half feet, well past what the city defines as “exceptional.”

Today’s decision is appealable, with a deadline of October 20th. Neighbors anticipating the decision have been crowdfunding to challenge it, saying city rules will require them to spend at least $3,000. They had obtained this opinion from a law firm contending that the city’s interpretation erred and was based on something a prior site owner had done 86 years ago.

Again, this is not the final word on the tree’s fate, pending a potential appeal, and the building-permit decision. Online files (see the “documents” tab) show the case already has drawn almost 100 public comments; it first came to our attention via this post in the WSB Forums.

31 Replies to "FOLLOWUP: City grants 'special exception' land-use permit to build house where huge Admiral tree stands"

  • Old Friend October 6, 2016 (9:40 am)

    Building  on a 3,166sq ft. lot is incredibly small.  I would hope the City’s exception to permit building  would require consent of neighboring ( north/south ) property owners.  Otherwise I would anticipate a neighborhood in dissent.  Is Cliff Low owner actually going to live in on the property and respect long time neighbors or is this a quick flip for him?

    • John October 6, 2016 (10:12 am)

      Old Friend,

      There are thousands of Seattle  homes on lots below 3,166 square feet..  Two years ago, the city council passed an ordinance requiring all lots be at least 2,500 sq. ft..  Before that houses were being built on lots smaller than 2,500.  The King County Plats shows thousands of 2,500 lots platted a hundred years ago.  

      Building on such now termed  ‘Substandard Lots’ has been traditionally allowed, but now there are additional restrictions on size and height of structures.  As long as the required five-foot setbacks from neighbors’ property line is followed, no agreement is required from neighbors. 

      There is no  legal or moral obligation  for the property owner to live in one or both homes.  It is the new people that the additional homes will attract that is important…how they will inhabit and become part of our community.

      Remember, the loss of one big tree in the city allows the preservation of hundreds of big trees in our growing suburbs.


  • miws October 6, 2016 (9:51 am)

    Maybe the city could offer a land swap of some nice hillside property a few blocks away that has been cleared  relatively recently, and as an incentive, allow for an over-height home to be built. ;-) 


  • matt hutchins October 6, 2016 (9:51 am)

    This decision is narrowly focused on whether the lot itself is a legal buildable (yes) not the tree’s status.  Those looking to contribute to this cause would be better off supporting  the Green Seattle Partnership, as arguing for the tree’s preservation doesn’t have any bearing on the legality of the lot itself.  

    Nevertheless, once the lot has been legitimized by the City, the tree preservation ordinance is clear that even exceptional trees can be cut down if they alone make an otherwise legal parcel unbuildable.  Which sadly seems to be the case here. 

  • John October 6, 2016 (9:53 am)

    Hey folks and tree lovers.

    Just visited this neighborhood to see this specimen.  

    It is indeed a large tree.  

    But it is on private property and owned by the property owner, not the neighbors.

    What is remarkable is that none of the complaining neighbors have any such trees.  

    Why don’t they?

    And if they are so concerned about trees why aren’t they  crowdfunding for trees of their own rather than suing and demonizing a neighbor.

    To start, I offer to donate each  of the plaintiffs a  Ponderosa Pine or other Fir/Cedar, Big Leaf Maple to plant in their front yards to more than make up for the loss of the neighboring tree.

    • Justin Bishop October 6, 2016 (10:14 am)

      John, you’re going to donate exceptional trees?  Because if not, I fail to see how you think that’s equivalent.  Try asking a tree nursery if a tree is the same price regardless of age and size…

      They’re not demonizing a neighbor, they’re demonizing the new developer that has never lived there.   why they don’t already have an exceptional tree on their lot would be like asking me why i haven’t already lived for 70 years.  gee sorry i guess that’s my fault.  ridiculous.

      • John October 6, 2016 (10:44 am)

        Hey Justin, what is equivalent is that all of these homes are older and established.   They all could have exceptional trees in their front yards if they wanted them. 

        What is not equivalent is that the complaining neighbors clear-cut their yards 70 years ago and never planted or allowed any trees (on their properties) to mature.  The families complaining probably are not the original homeowners, but what have they done to address their treeless yards in the last twenty years of their stewardship?

        What is wrong with these homeowners showing their love for trees by planting and caring for some on their own property?   It would be a far better example to the young, than a nasty complicated lawsuit that will scar the community.

        • I Love My Tree October 6, 2016 (8:08 pm)

          I have an exceptional tree in my back yard (trunk is nearly 7′ in diameter).  Due to poor trimming practices by previous owners and additional trimming by neighbors (the canopy covers portions of all 5 yards around mine–it’s a very big tree) it’s got a couple weaknesses in spots.  I spent almost $3000 the first year we were in the home to install dynamic cables to redistribute the weight so the weaknesses don’t worsen and become problems.  But it’s not going to have the same life span that every other tree of its species does.

          To say anyone with a yard and a home of a certain age can definitely have an exceptional tree in their yard is to deny that trees are living things and they’re going to grow and live how they want to grow and live.  Homeowners only have so much control over the life of their trees.  You can donate all the trees you want, but even with best efforts they’re not all going to make it.  I think that’s part of why people value the ones that DO make it to such an excellent size.

          • AmandaKH October 6, 2016 (8:52 pm)

            Can I come hug your tree?!! 7′!?  Covering 5 yards?!  Amazing! 

  • Justin Bishop October 6, 2016 (9:53 am)

    Can anybody point me to how to add my public comments to those listed online?

  • D DelRio October 6, 2016 (10:37 am)

    My mother wants to sale the lot next to her house. All the hombuilders that are interested said that there is an exceptional tree on the lot,which would make a large part of the lot unbuildable. My mother is 85 years old and needs the income, and this law has already caused some problems. I love the tree, but unless the city wants to buy the lot, i don’t think it should be the cities business what we do with it. I do believe that this is a 5000 sq ft lot.

  • Vanessa October 6, 2016 (10:41 am)

    “They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum…

    Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone….”

    Sad. The loss, the death of another beautiful and healthy tree. I know it’s someone else’s property. But what a crying shame to kill this tree. 

  • steve October 6, 2016 (12:07 pm)

    I want to thank your 85 year old mother for maintaining and keeping such a nice tree, and nice yard all this time.  She and the yard added a lot of charm. But things change, and sometimes ya just gotta move on,  for whatever reason.  Personally I would much rather see a nice new house there, with some grass and plants around it. NOT these giant boxes that take an entire block,  no grass, no yard, and 5 stories tall.  A single tree,  no way compares to this kind of assault. Build on my friend, and say hi to mom for me.

  • H October 6, 2016 (12:38 pm)

    If you don’t already have your design plans I’d be happy to offer some options. It’s very possible that you may be able to build and keep the tree. There are several homes here that have incorporated huge unmovable boulders into the architecture of their design. It doesn’t have to be cost or structurally prohibitive. 

  • d October 6, 2016 (1:04 pm)

    I have seedlings I could donate as well and they soon after 30 or 40 years will be exceptional as well there were trees all over West Seattle 30 years ago but everyone has since cut them down to no surprise of most smart people because folks need places to live duh

  • Paul Binder October 6, 2016 (1:17 pm)

    I have a nice big “exceptional” tree on my lot and City Light sent out some contractor to “trim” for the power lines, now my nice big tree is missing 1/3 of the tree on the street side of the tree.  They way over trimmed.  And nobody would do a thing about it.  It looks horrible from the street now.

  • John October 6, 2016 (1:23 pm)

    I hope an eagle and spotted owl nest there real soon……………..

  • H October 6, 2016 (2:06 pm)

    Cliff Low, If you don’t already have your plans for this property I have emailed WSB my professional contact information. It could be an interesting project.

  • onion October 6, 2016 (3:39 pm)

    Paul Binder, We have a similar situation with a bad job of topping a few months ago. We contacted the power company’s arborist, who came out to inspect it, discussed the tree with us at some length, and has agreed to send a follow-up crew that will clean up a bit after the first. Obviously they can’t put branches back on the tree, but they can at least minimize any negative impact to the tree while also improving the aesthetics for us and our neighbors. If the contractors they hire to protect power lines do a bad job, our complaints can at least make them more accountable.

  • BL October 6, 2016 (5:00 pm)

    “We are building an undersized 2-story home”- Undersize it  more and it will fit with the tree. Build a creative shape and it will fit. Just another option to killing a a big tree.

  • Mark October 6, 2016 (6:27 pm)

    The neighbors could work together and raise money to buy the lot in question and then leave the site undeveloped if they truly want to preserve the tree.  I like trees too but balance is necessary.

  • Save Our Silent Giant October 7, 2016 (6:18 am)

    We did offer to buy the property.  Cliff Low declined.  His business model is to buy a home on two parcels, obtain a controversial permit to build while he rents the home, and then sell both homes (~$400K profit) after construction.  He pays no impact fees.   We are left with more traffic, less parking, further strained aging infrastructure, and more demand on overcrowded schools.  There are 2 main issues with this decision:  1) the City is not following their own code for historic lot exceptions which allows them to build a dwelling on undersized lots; 2) The City’s fee to appeal this decision will be ~$15,000.  Cliff Low paid a flat $1,000 fee to get permission to build.  The City has created an undocumented process that savvy developers take advantage of called a Legal Building Site Letter of Opinion.  By giving away City services and approving most requests, developers don’t sue. By charging citizens $15,000 to challenge bad decisions, neighbors don’t sue.  We only know of one neighbor from Queen Anne who has sued out of 81 Legal BS letters since 2014.  We consider this a social and equity injustice as well as a violation of our 1st amendment rights.  If you would like to help us by lending your financial support, see:  We also recommend emailing Lisa Herbold at  I have a tree in my yard that has a diameter of 3′ and growing strong as do several others, just none as magnificent as our Silent Giant which is protected under the  Tree Code if the HLE code was followed.

    • John October 7, 2016 (10:50 am)

      Silent Giant,

      I am not familiar with the city charging a $15,000 fee to challenge a decision.  Can you point me to the document that supports you claim?

      I am also curious about the offer you mentioned to buy the lot as well as the tree.  Was it a formal written offer?  Who was it made to?  Did the seller counter?  How far apart were you on the price?

      I am familiar with the Legal Building Site letter.  It allows people to determine whether a site can legally be built on at the time of the document.   This can be done by a person wishing to sell off some of their property or a person buying property with the intent of adding new housing.  

      The $1000 charged for the opinion helps cover the $250 per hour that DCI charges.  

      These letters provide definitive analysis of the proposed site and provide needed certainty for anyone involved in the process, buyer or seller.  The process is open and available to everyone willing to pay the fee.  It is usually a suggestion that planning screeners make to visitors of DCI’s 20th floor information office.

      The Seattle Development Code overwhelms virtually anyone attempting to make sense of it (I can attest to that).  

      It is one place where simple due diligence will not suffice.  Different DCI employees will give inconsistent  and confusing information.  Some things are impossible to find out with any certainty without the Site Letter or entering the far more costly permitting process.

  • Cass Turnbull October 7, 2016 (8:46 am)

    The point missed by most Smart Growthers who support building on every square inch of green space in Seattle is that both Density Goals and Green Space goals can be achieved by buiding ‘up, not out’ inside the City.

    The cumulative cost  of an entire rapidly growing City converting its pervious land into impervious land (back yards, vacant lots on steep hillsides, etc into concrete and builings) will be immense. We are already under court order to stop polluting the bays with stormwater runoff, the summer temperatures in the City are skyrocketing, we’ve got urban flooding, mud slides, and a rise in public health problems due to heat, pollution, and stress related causes.Trees are the universal mitigator.

    And when the City finally looks like the suface of the Death Star in Star Wars, you can bet people will be fleeing to the burbs again, defeating the purpose of Smart Growth. They already are.

    Density without concurrant infrastructure, including green infrastructure, is horrible to experience, is a study in unintended consequences, and could lock in serious problems that cannot be fixd later.

    We must do Density right the first time, because we won’t have the chance to do it over.

    • John October 7, 2016 (10:18 am)

      Again Cass?

      I would have thought you would have been silenced after your proclamation that the 35th ave  homeowners would never be prosecuted.  

      You were proven wrong.

      Th city attorney is indeed prosecuting, contrary to your widely publicized  claims, in filing the $1.6 million tree cutting  case.

      Now Cass is making more false or ignorant claims. 

      Nearly all of her statements are old and no longer valid talking points with elements of truth.

      Element of truth, the city has been under Federal Court order to  address storm runoff for decades.

      Seattle has been spending massively to address this.  In West Seattle we have the growing networks of city streets being connected to green drainage wells.  It started with Westwood and Sunrise Heights.  We have spent enormously on  storage tanks and pump plants( Murray CSO at Lowman Park) and giant sewage treatment plants.  Puget Sound is cleaner as is Lake Washington than over the last half century.

      The storm runoff was caused by Seattle’s historic combined sanitary sewer and storm drains, when a big rain event overcomes the system.  Only old established housing is grandfathered into allowing gutters to be tight-lined directly to the sanitary/combined  sewer.  Cass like me and most of Seattle lives in older housing that created and sustains this problem.  

      And yes, there are a few of us that have converted our homes to ‘green’ storm water disposal on site.

      Cass probably knows that current codes address all of the issues she brings up.  

      Like the fact that ALL new construction is required to address storm water with green mitigation.  You can see this in the concrete basins filled with earth and plantings that new homes must have.   Any new development is required to delineate collect and properly address hard surface run-off.  This was never required before.

      Cass’s other points are questionable.  Global warming may be accepted by science, but there is no indication that Seattle’s has “skyrocketing”  summer temperatures that set it apart or are even “skyrocketing”.

      We have not had serious urban flooding for a decade since these requirements and changes were made at great cost.

      Last year was a record year for rain but Seattle was not deluged by mudslides.  

  • WSJoe October 7, 2016 (9:46 am)

    If you haven’t noticed, Mayor Ed and the SCC totally support developers butchering the city.  And now the SCC wants to open public parks and sidewalks to encampments throughout West Seattle (Whale Tail, Fairmount, Bar S, Lincoln Park, etc.)

  • adamstis October 8, 2016 (7:33 pm)

    I would like the City to be brave and bold and stand up to developers that want to tear this city apart.  This tree has been here a very long time and we will never have a tree like this in our area in our lifetime. 

  • west seattle neighbor October 10, 2016 (7:25 am)

    This is a huge tree on a very small lot.  Building on such tiny lots does not does nothing to enhance  a neighbor hood, unlike keeping big beauftiful trees.   Sometimes it appears that the city (mayor and council) is in cahoots with the developers?  The council says it is green…. but is not interested in preserving  our beautiful trees.

Sorry, comment time is over.