Hearing Examiner rejects appeal in 3038 39th SW ‘tree vs. house’ case

2:29 PM: Just in: The ruling in the appeal of a city decision allowing a “historic lot exception” for a house to be built at 3038 39th SW, on a site that holds an “exceptional” tree that neighbors hoped to see preserved.

Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner, ruling 13 days after the case was argued in her chambers (WSB coverage here), has upheld the city decision, saying that appellant Lisa Parriott and supporters “have not met their burden of proving that the (Department of Construction and Inspections) interpretation was clearly erroneous, and it should therefore be affirmed.” We’re requesting reaction and will add whatever we get.

4:32 PM: We’ve just spoken with Lisa Parriott, who tells us, “We’re disappointed, obviously” and “evaluating all possible paths, including Superior Court.”

37 Replies to "Hearing Examiner rejects appeal in 3038 39th SW 'tree vs. house' case"

  • Jason January 25, 2017 (2:55 pm)

    Happy to hear this. Great news for the builder and hopefully they can move ahead with building and ideally they will plant a few new trees as well. 

    • EarthFirst! January 27, 2017 (8:07 pm)

      What is wrong with you?! So some rich dude is more important than trees? More important than the people who’ve tried to save it? Do you have no compassion at all?

  • Ron Swanson January 25, 2017 (3:17 pm)

    Excellent.  Hopefully this is a valuable lesson to those who want to micromanage other’s property.(the lesson is: move somewhere with an HOA if you want to do that)

    • Jethro Marx January 25, 2017 (4:25 pm)

      You, sir, and Jason, above, are both wack; this is not an issue of telling a property owner they can’t do what the law allows with regard to their property, it’s the city giving them special permission to develop outside the bounds of the law. If I build a modest garage in my backyard but it goes against the zoning rules I’ll be told to tear it down. If someone with more money buys my property they can finagle a way to do a bunch of pseudo-legal stuff in the name of density. The tree’s not really the issue, it’s building a second house on a normal-sized lot. I bet you would have no sense of irony complaining if a neighbor of yours stored a stack of horse carcasses on the lot line. Do you want to interfere with his right to manage his own property, then? The laws are not blind to the size of one’s purse, it seems.

      • Ron Swanson January 25, 2017 (5:23 pm)

        The new house is being built on a historic lot, platted before the city decided to enforce minimum 5000 square foot lots (in part to keep out the undesirables).  So building a house on it is essentially “by right” development.  I’m not sure what’s so underhanded or corrupt about that.  And the fact you equate a single family house with a pile of rotten carcasses really says something.

      • Hame January 25, 2017 (5:27 pm)


        The code clearly states that the owner can cut the tree.   That is what the City has said and now the Hearing Examiner.    Saying  it is “Outside the bounds of the law” is misleading and dishonest.  

        • EarthFirst! January 27, 2017 (8:10 pm)

          Which “law” do you mean? The ones humans make and break and remake? Some laws are made to be broken.

  • jwg January 25, 2017 (3:47 pm)

    Why can the the property owner cut down that tree when we have an ordinance that says we cannot cut down trees unless they are hazardous or endangered according to City ordinances?

    I wouldn’t have expected any other ruling from a hearing Examiner who is examining the City’s action.  Their interest is the City’s, not the citizens as just as the City Attorney doesn’t bring suits against the City’s actions on behalf of the citizens, but only defends the City.

  • WsEd January 25, 2017 (3:51 pm)
    • Straight quote from Brandon S Gribben’s webpage.  He’s the lawyer representing the builder.
    • Here is a talk he gave back in March of last year.
    • “Challenges with Redevelopment Projects,” Housing and Mixed Use Development in Washington: Cashing in on the Boom and Avoiding Litigation (CLE) (March 18, 2016, Seattle, WA)
  • D Del Rio January 25, 2017 (3:59 pm)

    My retired mother owns a house in Arbor Heights, and she was thinking of selling to a developer. Her house sits on two lots, and the developer told her that the city would not allow them to cut down the Douglas Fir tree in her yard. This was do to a Seattle ordinance dealing with exceptional trees. Is this true. My mother is on social security, and the proceeds from the house would help her live the rest of her life not worrying about medicals bills and such. Does anyone out there know if this is true? I have tried to look this up on line, and have come across conflicting information.  As much as I love the tree, that tree will not pay for my mothers bills. 

    • WSB January 25, 2017 (4:12 pm)

      DDR, please see my comment about the first story, in which the city told us exactly what circumstances they allow “exceptional” trees to be cut in.

    • chemist January 25, 2017 (9:19 pm)

      A douglas fir isn’t exceptional until it hits a 30 inch single-trunk diameter measured at 4.5 ft above ground, but the rules are different for handling trees when a part of lot re-development (like that tree that ended up being cut north of the Junction QFC illustrated).  

      My cynical side thinks the odd gaps in tree-protection sugests that, if you suspect a house would be a tear-down, you should remove the three or so non-exceptional trees you’re allowed each year before they get too big to keep maximum land development potential and then sell the property.

    • EarthFirst! January 27, 2017 (8:19 pm)

      So sorry about your mom. We all need to work towards making sure *all* of us can survive on social security. I know that’s not much consolation now, but plenty of folks are doing that hard work. We all should! I’m 46, and recently became disabled due to on-the-job injury. Have lost everything these last 10 months, but I would never dream of cutting down a tree to help myself. It’s just my thing, I guess. 

      There used to be a local “Grey Panthers” chapter to help retired (and families) advocate for themselves. I’ll check around and see what I can find…

  • Rick January 25, 2017 (5:18 pm)

    Isn’t Arbor Heights outside city limits?

    • WSB January 25, 2017 (5:21 pm)


    • S January 26, 2017 (8:45 am)

      I believe the City Limits stop at Roxbury as the Safeway there still gives out plastic bags.

      • WSB January 26, 2017 (8:58 am)

        The city/county border goes down the middle of Roxbury from 30th eastward. There are many maps online, among them the SPD report map, where the purple dotted line shows the city/county boundary. http://web6.seattle.gov/mnm/policereports.aspx

        • S January 26, 2017 (2:24 pm)

          So half of Arbor Heights is in the City Limits and the other half is not.  

  • Save Our Silent Giant January 25, 2017 (6:30 pm)


    Check the City of Seattle Tree Protection Code:  25.11.040.  Bottom line, if the tree stands in the way of being able to fully develop your lot as allowed by the building code (23.44), the tree can be cut down even if it is considered an “exceptional” tree.   Trees do not stand in the way of development in Seattle.

    The second part of the question is if your lot is buildable.  If you are unsure, then call the City and ask for Andy McKim, Bill Mills, or David Graves.  

    If you have an undersized lot for your zoning, talk to them about requesting a Legal Building Site Letter of Opinion.  Only developers know about this process (no documentation exists) so you will have to call the City and inquire about how to initiate the investigation.  These three are the ones who write these letters so they can answer your questions.

    Unfortunately, several elderly people in your mom’s situation have transferred their wealth unknowingly to developers.  They have paid their property taxes their whole lives and never realized the value of their property.  

    I applaud you for looking out for your mom and her well being.  I would not trust what a developer is telling you; there is an inherent conflict of interest.

  • jissy January 25, 2017 (8:27 pm)

    I’m SHOCKED!!!   (Said of course with massive sarcasm!)

  • BW January 25, 2017 (9:22 pm)

    May I ask, how much was spent on attorney fees for this process?   And how much do we think the owner paid in fees for the right to build on the property?   Who is going to end up paying for the fees?  Ultimately, it’s every Seattle resident.  

    1) We pay HIGH taxes to the city who manages the hearings / reviews.

    2) We collectively pay  for builder’s costs in higher housing prices.  And,

    3) The fewer homes available drive housing prices up for all Seattle residents, both owners and renters.  

    Mayor Murray states “We are facing our worst housing affordability crisis in decades.”  Trees are great but shouldn’t we care more about people?  Less housing = higher costs.  It’s supply and demand.  The lot is safe to build on and the city has ruled….so let’s move on!  

  • What it's all about January 25, 2017 (10:34 pm)

    What we’ve learned through this whole process of trying to save the tree  is not to trust developers and even real estate agents when it comes to selling a property with a side yard.   The financial reward in obtaining a buildable lot for free is too much of a temptation for many to be honest. 

    And when we say “side yard” this means an unattached garage, a porch or deck, a swimming pool, a garden, a exceptional tree, as well as open space.  Basically, any space 2,500 square feet or greater that is not currently covered by a house may qualify as a possible buildable lot.    

    If before 1957, the side yard was separately owned,  platted,  described in a permit, or based on this most recent Hearing Examiner decision, not described or omitted in a permit, the City will consider it a buildable lot under the Historic Lot Exception.  Actions taken by owners after 1957 do not matter.  In addition, with the City’s approach, properties  were divided for development before 1972 simply by selling them.  However, the City does not consider properties to have been consolidated by the same approach.  You can only combine land by building a house over the entire area.  For example, if two platted lots were purchased and the owner built a house on only one, the other is by default considered a buildable lot – even if the owner built a garage or extended a deck on the other platted lot.

    Bottom line:  don’t sell any residential property in Seattle with an area of 2,500 square feet or greater not covered by a house until you have checked with the City staff to confirm or deny, in writing, if it is a buildable lot!

    • wsea98116 January 25, 2017 (11:17 pm)

      You keep saying- “obtain a build able lot”, but there is no obtaining involved. If it was a lot, it still is- regardless of whether previous owners realize the potential to develop it. No one is stealing or transferring someone’s wealth. People do make money from developing property. (And from dentistry, and fruit stands, technology, and dry cleaning..) Buyer beware, and seller beware, too. Not all old folks are as stupid as you seem to think they are- many know these old rules better than you, obviously, and rightfully capitalize on their properties. 

  • wsea98116 January 25, 2017 (11:03 pm)

    I don’t understand all these crazy insinuations and accusations about the city, and the DCI and the examiner.  This is not a special situation, if has happened legally countless times before, and it is all above board and fair. If you read the briefs, you can only come to that conclusion. Any argument put forth by Parriott crew is nonsensical hyperbole, and changes with the wind. There are at least 3 lots on that block that are under 3500sf, and now a fourth- it’s right and just and has always been a legal lot. The only thing criminal here is the amount of damage inflicted by an uninterested party.  It was ok for everyone else to cut trees to build houses, and it is now proven, under intense scrutiny, and without a shadow of a doubt,  that it is ok for A house to be built on the lot in question, by it’s owner- even if the lady accross the street doesn’t want a house built  there.

  • Seabruce January 26, 2017 (12:34 am)

    Sadly, Seattle doesn’t protect trees as much as Toronto, Canada where I was born: http://www.toronto.ca/311/knowledgebase/65/101000042065.html

  • Enid January 26, 2017 (5:25 am)

    Seattle has an abysmal record compared to other cities when it comes to protecting trees.  Fewer parks, fewer city arborists, fewer tree lined boulevards that lend such elegance and value to city streets and neighborhoods.  This is a little quoted FACT that the ‘clear cut, let’s make a buck’ crowd tends to ignore: statistics clearly show that trees, especially large ones, contribute to property value.   Not to mention environmental benefits that humans rely on for survival (you know, silly things like breathing)

    And no, not only are people are NOT more important, it is not a contest!! Trees are essential to human survival; cramming two houses on a tiny lot is not a blessing to humankind, it is a boon to developers.  Period.

    • John January 26, 2017 (7:24 am)

      statistics clearly show that trees, especially large ones, contribute to property value”.

      Simply put.

      Not true.

      Trees contribute only when they do not block a coveted view.  Ask any realtor or real estate appraiser.

      The myth that trees  contribute value is without merit in our neck of the woods.  

      If trees actually did increase property values, Seattle would not have any issues with people cutting trees down.  It would be the opposite, with Seattle requiring homeowners to remove dense forests covering their yards.

  • j January 26, 2017 (5:57 am)

    Don’t worry about cutting exceptional trees down in Arbor Heights. You will have zero issues.

    There was no issues cutting down a WAY beyond exceptional Doug Fir at 35th n 104th (right next to school) nor was there for the exceptional Maple mid block on 106th between 35th and 39th.

    You also don’t have to worry about illegally cutting our green belts either like on Marine View Dr. between 100th and Roxbury. Residents continue to slash and damage trees even after the tree cutting debacle by WS bridge. 

  • Neighbor January 26, 2017 (9:18 am)

    @john-the studies actually show that they do increase value, people value beauty and nature. In fact,  people spend more money when trees are present. It can range anywhere from 2% to 18%.  

    This is just one study-


  • wsea98116 January 26, 2017 (10:37 am)

    Drat- the evil developers who build houses and sell them to us, so we can live in them! And aarggh- the evil people who make our fancy jeans! Dang- those evil people making all those subaru’s we all seem to need to drive around!! Why do they all oppress us so?!?

    Yes, we can all have and grow trees on our own property, or buy treed lots and not build, or tear our own houses down and plant trees- All these options seem reasonable. BUT- Sitting in our own house on our lot, and telling our neighbors not to build a house on their own lot, because we prefer their tree- is not reasonable. Taking legal actions, and making appeals to try and block a neighbors right to build is simply outrageous. 

    I would certainly bring suit against the interfering party for all costs and damages associated with their attempt to block my legal rights to build.  

    • Jason January 26, 2017 (3:02 pm)

      Spot on wsea98116. Where is the LIKE button on this thing?

      As i previously posted, I went through a similar issue with a tree and some neighbors that became irate I was removing it from my property. Finally tree was removed and building continued all with increased property values and improved views for all my neighbors. You’re welcome. 

  • I. Ponder January 26, 2017 (12:29 pm)

    D Del Rio: The developer is hoping to cheat your mom. The city will allow the developer to cut down the tree. Look around at all the development. We need more housing and inasmuch as I love trees, they will be cut down on buildable lots. The developer is trying to get two lots for the price of one. Is that cheating or just business?

    • wsea98116 January 26, 2017 (3:19 pm)

      Seller should absolutely try to determine if another lot exists on their parcel. If they think it may, they can price accordingly, and if someone believes they can build, they will pay!

      j would happily do some investigating for you, if you give me your contact info.  (BTW- I’m not interested in buying your lot, but I enjoy the puzzle of lot qualifying process ..)

  • Abby January 27, 2017 (9:15 am)

    Sad news. I hope someone takes the wood and creates art and/or furniture in memory of the tree. 

  • EarthFirst! January 27, 2017 (7:32 pm)

    Google “tree sit”. I don’t give a hoot about “property owners”. If you want to build a big, dumb house, buy a lot you can build on without tearing out the lungs of the earth. Trees do so more than “look pretty”. They’re nitrogen fixers for the earth around it. Some lichens (the best fixers)won’t even grow until a tree is at least 100 years old.

    I have zero sympathy for this “landowner”. Their arrogance at the the foot of nature makes my blood boil. Karma has a way of biting back, so I’m not worried about that. 

    I’m more worried about the horrified, kind, altruistic, caring neighbors and their KIDS. You CAN defend nature when man-made laws fail (as they usually do, unless you have a truckload of money).

    Nature can’t defend itself, and lawyers rarely can. We know that, right?! We know that there are higher laws than the ones our pea-brains can dream up?

    Dont give up, neighbors! If you ask, you’ll find help. 

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