The City of Edmonds has launched an investigation into the destruction of public property after contractors working on a condominium project significantly damaged the root system of a 60-year-old Douglas Fir tree located partially on city right of way, requiring the tree’s removal the next day, city officials said.
The condominium project is owned by Woodway resident Charles Ainslie, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Mountlake Terrace-based Golf Savings Bank. The city sent a cease and desist order to Ainslie to prevent him from “any activity that damages, injures, wastes, clears or cuts any tree on City of Edmonds property,” according to City Attorney Scott Snyder. The order also put Ainslie on notice that the city is pursuing both criminal and civil actions related to damage, Snyder said.
The incident reportedly occurred on Walnut Street between Third and Fourth Avenues, where the tree in question was integrated into the backyard fence line of an Edmonds home. The property and the fence had been in the family for 60 years and the current homeowner wasn’t aware that the tree, estimated to be 65 feet high, was located on a city easement, according to Edmonds City Councilmember D.J. Wilson.
Wilson and Councilmember Diane Buckshnis met with the homeowner following the alleged incident, and Wilson briefed the Council on July 6, after which the council approved a motion directing the City Attorney to pursue legal action.
During his July 6 council briefing, Wilson showed photographs that documented both the tree’s location within the fence line and how the area appeared after the tree was removed. “They took out the woman’s fence, took out the tree,” Wilson said. “They had a number of birds and bird houses, there were a number of nests,” which the workers tossed into the alleyway during the tree removal process, he added.
The condominium project owned by Ainslie is located across the alleyway to the east of the fence line, Wilson said, and on the morning of June 28, the homeowner heard a chainsaw noise coming from her backyard and went out to investigate. She discovered a group of workers cutting down her fence next to the tree.
“She went out and said, What are you doing, and folks who are working on this building back here said it’s none of your business, this tree is on city property, don’t worry about it, Wilson told the council.
The homeowner, who runs a licensed day care on property, had 12 children in her care at the time and watched helplessly as the contractors came on to her property to remove the tree, which was completely cut down and ground up within a few hours, Wilson said. The contractors rebuilt the fence after removing the tree, but the shade that the tree provided to the children at the facility is gone, Wilson added.
Shortly after the tree was removed, a man identifying himself as Charles Ainslie visited the homeowner and offered her cash for permission to cut down three additional trees on her property, which she declined, Wilson told the Council.
Because the homeowner operates a day care, she declined to be interviewed on the record for this story, citing privacy concerns. My Edmonds News was unable to reach Charles Ainslie for comment.
City of Edmonds Engineer Rob English said the city gave the contractors permission to remove the tree for safety reasons on Tuesday, June 29, but that was only because the tree’s root system was significantly damaged by the contractor the day before.
The root cutting allegedly occurred without city permission on Monday, June 28, after a representative for the contractor hired by Ainslie had come to City Hall asking how they should handle an apparent conflict between a large tree located on city right of way and development plans for the construction project, English said.
Staff at the counter told the contractors’ representative it would have to be investigated, English said. The next morning, city engineering staff went out to the site and discovered that the contractors had already cut a significant amount of tree roots in preparing to build the driveway entrance to the development.
“They were given specific instructions not to proceed but they did anyway,” English said. “At that point, the decision was made to allow the removal since the tree was now a safety hazard.”
When asked about the procedure for notifying the homeowner about the tree cutting, English said that the city would rely on the contractor to make that notification, especially in a situation where they had to be on part of her property to take down some of the tree.
Parents of children who attend the home-based day care on the property were “shocked and extremely upset” when they learned about the loss the tree, said Stan Hanson, father of two children who have been coming to the day care for several years. “I couldn’t even recognize the play yard because it was completely different,” Hanson said. “They lost a really nice oasis back there where they could play. It was completely transformed in 24 hours.” The parents have established a tree fund to help the homeowner replace the tree, Hanson said.
According to Snyder, depending on the outcome of the investigation, the city could pursue criminal action, civil action or both. The city has retained an expert to determine the estimated value of the tree, which can be accurately determined through photographs. If the city decides to pursue civil action, under state law it can seek three times the tree’s value.