Letter to the editor: How added ‘tree bureaucracy’ will affect property owners and residents

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Editor:

The location that is currently present day Edmonds was incorporated in 1890. The city has evolved into a pleasant suburban city containing a variety of vegetation, including a variety of tree species planted by residents. The tree inventory on private property has managed to thrive without any government oversight for the first 120 years of the city’s existence, as witnessed by the lush canopy in many Edmonds residential neighborhoods.

In 2010, the Edmonds Tree Board was organized and tasked with various activities related to the trees of Edmonds.

By the end of 2014, interacting with liaisons from city council, city staff and an ordinance developmental consultant, that board generated a proposed tree ordinance for the city of Edmonds.

That proposed ordinance Chapter 23.20 ECDC -Tree Conservation, had it had been adopted, included in part provisions for:

  • An intricate and expensive permitting process, often with the necessity of the retention of private consultants at considerable expense to the private residential owner to remove any trees for virtually any reason.
  • Governmental requirements and oversight as to the number and size of trees required to be maintained on each individual private property.
  • Extensive fines for not complying with the ordinance.

Enough Edmonds residents vehemently opposed the proposed legislation that the proposed ordinance was not implemented by the Edmonds City Council.

One is encouraged to review the entire document to observe an excellent example of potential extensive governmental overreach and interference with private property rights: https://www.edmondswa.gov/images/COE/Government/Boards_and_Commissions/Boards/Tree_Board/TreeCode/TreeBoardRecommendation_ECDC2320.pdf.

A consultant report, the “City of Edmonds, Urban Forest Master Plan 2017 Draft March 2018,” has recently been generated and will be presented to the Edmonds City Council for review and implementation: https://www.edmondswa.gov/images/COE/Government/Departments/Development_Services/Planning_Division/Plans/UFMP/EdmondsWA-UFMP-2018_03_12-PagesWEB.pdf.

Recognizing that there would be significant opposition to government mandates applied to private property, the Urban Forest Master Plan focuses on how best to increase the number, appropriateness and quality of trees on public property, as well as promoting an aggressive educational campaign to educate the public on the benefits of increasing the tree canopy both on public and private property.

Ignored in this process is the fact that local, state and federal government policies, statutes and ordinances have had a deleterious direct and indirect impact on the tree canopy in Edmonds, as well as other urban centers.

Focusing on the state level, the Urban Growth Management Act has both restricted property that can be developed for residential development, and dictated that future growth including increased density be primarily channeled to existing urban population centers.

This mandate has resulted in part in the escalating expense in obtaining land to develop residential housing.

As a result of prohibitively expensive residential parcels available for development, as well as legislated density goals, cities are aggressively amending their comprehensive plans and corresponding zoning ordinances. Comprehensive plans are transforming what were once single family neighborhoods into high density “affordable” multi unit neighborhoods. Apartments, condominiums and town houses are being developed on what were once single family parcels. As a result, there is a corresponding loss of area available for all vegetation, including trees.

Escalating costs associated with marshalling residential parcels has had a transformational effect on single family residential development. Large single-family residences must be built in order for the projects to be economically viable. The development of modestly sized 1,000-square-foot single-family starter houses allowing a majority of the parcel to be covered with vegetation including trees are residences of a bygone construction era.

As a result of both the dramatic increased cost and lack of affordable housing, the state has mandated that counties such as Snohomish County with cities the population size of Edmonds encourage Accessory Dwelling Units to be constructed on single family parcels. That intensive development not only eliminates existing vegetation and trees on single-family parcels, but precludes future vegetation as the residential footprint is expanded to accommodate the second dwelling unit.

The use of planning devices to increase density, such as Planned Unit Developments, allow an increased number of residences on parcels zoned for single family development. That form of development also reduces available area for all vegetation, including trees.

There is a certain irony that government officials ranging from local cities to the state level are focused on tasks to ensure that various Puget Sound jurisdictions fulfill their governmental mandated requirement to plan for and promote population growth in established cities through increased density. That growth and resultant density in these fully developed jurisdictions will result in the decrease of the “forest canopy” due to intensive redevelopment density. Concurrently, governmental employees throughout Puget Sound are engaged in activities to maintain or even increase the same tree canopies. It is even more ironic that, often, it is the same government department or even the same employees that are tasked with addressing both issues at the same time, all underwritten by overburdened taxpayers.

The Urban Forest Master Plan calculated that tree canopy has been reduced in Edmonds from 32.3 percent to 30.3 percent between the years 2005 and 2015. Not a surprise to anyone as legislative mandates require Edmonds to develop more residential assets in a city that is almost fully developed to comply with various density developmental requirements.

Most Edmonds residents, both homeowners and renters, have unknowingly made and continue to make significant contributions to preventing development in adjacent rural areas. That has been accomplished as a result of the strict mandates of the Urban Growth Management Act, which has resulted in increased prices, density, noise, lack of residential privacy, traffic and lack of parking, as increased development has been legislatively funneled into Edmonds and other cities, rather than in undeveloped areas. That factor, including the number of trees saved from development, is never considered as a cost to homeowners and renters in this process, nor is the benefit of those undisturbed trees included in any calculation of tree canopy loss for those urban areas sacrificing their quality of life to prevent development elsewhere. It is an unofficial vegetation, tree and land bank that much of the state population is unknowingly participating in through the legislated density degradation of their own immediate urban and suburban environment.

There is actually positive news when calculating the size of the current United States tree canopy. Reviewing the statistics, it has been concluded by experts that there are now more trees in the United States than there were one hundred years ago. This is due to a variety of factors including:

  • Forest management practices.
  • The expansion of the national park and national monument systems.
  • Reduction of need for agricultural land as a result of improved agricultural practices which produce greater crop yields.
  • Elimination of marginal farming operations – with those properties often reverting back to forests.
  • Urbanization of the US population – less people placing residential pressure and development on rural areas.

Thus, the United States is actually increasing its tree canopy, as opposed to conventional alarmist wisdom which incorrectly asserts that the tree inventory in the United States is rapidly dwindling due to rapid over development.

The Urban Forest Master Plan estimates that approximately 44 to 64 staff hours per week is currently dedicated to ongoing tree maintenance and related issues in Edmonds. That is equivalent to one and one half full time government positions currently focused only trees.

The Urban Forest Master Plan reports that Edmonds is currently allocating $7.74 per capita per year to overall tree maintenance, The average for most jurisdictions is $7.50 per capita, and the Edmonds figure is significantly more than the $2 per capita required for “Tree City USA” designation that is cited by the Urban Forest Master Plan. More about a “Tree City USA” designation later.

Four recommendations suggested by the Urban Forest Master Plan that may interfere with either private property rights, or dramatically increase the cost to taxpayers are:

  • The establishment of an Edmonds Tree Bank for developers and private homeowners to subsidize both the planting and replacing of trees in Edmonds.
  • A Heritage Tree program to be instituted in Edmonds focused on “exceptional” trees located on either public or private property. Some of the case examples provided in the Urban Forest Master Plan as successful Heritage Tree government programs in other jurisdictions, specifically include trees on private property, and that designation would transfer to the new owners in any conveyance.
  • A specific licensing program for those engaged in the business of tree management, rather than just a business license that is currently required to remove trees in Edmonds. This requirement is justified as tree ordinances are becoming more complex and further training is required. Increased licensing requirements by any professional group usually results in increased costs to the consumer.
  • The organization of a formal bureaucracy within the city of Edmonds charged with supervising and implementing all aspects of tree management and maintenance, including the employment of a full-time arborist.

While certain goals enunciated in the Urban Forest Master Plan are important – (such as the removal of dangerous trees), many of these goals are secondary to the primary goals of operating the city of Edmonds in an effective and cost efficient manner.

Edmonds city council should resist the temptation to transform any recommendations into another official layer of governmental bureaucracy. Not only are property taxes “too damn high” (as the popular saying goes for rent) after property owners experienced the largest property tax increase in recent memory, but there are traditional governmental functions that are currently not being implemented in a timely and efficient manner that simply must take precedence. As demonstrated by its own study, Edmonds is currently spending more than the average American city does per capita on tree maintenance.

Edmonds should focus on the following basic activities pertaining to tree maintenance:

  • The replacement of dead and dangerous trees on public property, and the prioritizing of limited future tree plantings that will impact the city’s public image, desirability and enjoyment in heavily accessed public areas.
  • Planting of a limited pre-determined number of trees each year to prevent erosion issues on a priority basis within strict financial and assessment guidelines.
  • The rejection of any “heritage tree” program that will impact the property rights of any private property.
  • The development of tree regulations so they are easily understood by not only tree professionals, but the public, removing the necessity of imposing increased licensing requirements for those working with trees in the private sector, and creating confusion and concern amongst residents.
  • Reliance on the private and non profit sector to provide educational information about the importance and care of trees to private property owners.
  • A voluntary financing mechanism for those who wish to contribute to increasing the city’s tree canopy at public locations.
  • Resist the establishment of initiating a formal tree bureaucracy that will increase the cost of government through increased salaries, benefits and expanded governmental activities.

The percentage of trees on public property is only 13 percent of the entire city inventory. The necessity to create a new layer of bureaucracy has not been demonstrated to be required over the past 128 years that Edmonds has been an incorporated city.

The Urban Forest Master Plan makes repeated references to a “Tree City USA” designation.

What exactly is that Tree City USA designation anyway? It is a program sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation. The Arbor Day Foundation is not a governmental agency. It is a nonprofit 501(C)(3) organization.

To obtain Tree City USA designation, which the city of Edmonds attained in 2011, one year after the Edmonds tree board was established, the applying jurisdiction must meet the four criteria established by the Arbor Day Foundation:

  • Establish a Tree Board or Department
  • Establish a Tree Care Ordinance.
  • Provide that the jurisdiction is spending at least $2 per capita for tree maintenance activities.
  • Establish an annual Arbor Day celebration.

While maintaining and increasing the tree canopy in Edmonds on pubic and private property may be a just and noble cause, there are thousands of private groups functioning in the United States, all believing that they too are promoting just and noble causes that take priority over all other issues. The fact that Edmonds has obtained the designation of “Tree City USA” is irrelevant to most residents of Edmonds. Of much greater concern to most residents are the appropriate and effective allocation of tax revenues, the limitation of further tax increases including but not limited to property tax increases, and the protection of private property rights, which over the years have faced both greater risks and degradation than the Edmonds tree canopy.

The December 2014 draft Tree Conservation ordinance that was ultimately rejected, declared in part that:

” The City Of Edmonds makes the following findings:

A. The trees of Edmonds:

………………………………………………..

12. Contribute to human health by lowering levels of fear of residents, and less violent and aggressive behavior by its citizens;

13. Encourage better neighbor relations and better coping skills for its residents”.

The above findings of fact are probably more wishful thinking than based upon empirical and verifiable evidence. If correct, Manhattan, New York City with its virtual total lack of neighborhood trees should have one of the highest rates of violent crime with residents afraid to depart from their homes. The reality is that Manhattan is one of the safest and pedestrian-traveled cities in the world. Furthermore, most Manhattanites exhibit superior coping skills than most Americans, given the environment they must endure on a daily basis, and they do it often without ever encountering even a single tree the entire day.

More universally accepted is the concept that private property rights form the foundation of a free society. It is suggested that for any proposed legislation that impacts private property rights, either directly or indirectly through increased taxation, the following finding of fact be included in any future legislation.

The City Of Edmonds makes the following findings:

“So great moreover is the regard of the law for private property, that it will not authorize the least violation of it; no, not even for the general good of the entire community”
William Blackstone, eminent English jurist, 1723 -1780.

After all, the issue at hand is not some undeclared war against trees by individuals who hate cleaning their gutters or roofs as a result of falling tree debris. It is part of a broader concern about the erosion of property rights in general, and the expansion of and increased cost of government bureaucracy and its negative effects on property owners, renters and businesses.

There will be a public hearing on this matter on May 9, 7 p.m. in council chambers at Edmonds City Hall. All who are interested in protecting private property rights, as well as preventing another potential expensive and intrusive expansion of local government should attend and voice their concerns.

If citizens are not informed, not vigilant, and are unwilling to become politically involved when their property rights are threatened by special interests and government intrusion, those rights, as well as their bank accounts will continue to be eroded over time.

Eric Soll
Edmonds WA

8 Replies to “Letter to the editor: How added ‘tree bureaucracy’ will affect property owners and residents”

  1. I understand property owner’s concerns. However I’m alarmed at the number of homes being sold and the lots stripped bare. The lots then are covered with monster houses or multiple monster houses on the lot. Our green canopy is rapidly shrinking over the whole area. There has to be a compromise that spares our trees.

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  2. This ‘story’ was too long and detailed for me to read in it’s entirety but the premise and the few sections I did read agree with my sentiments. With only 13% of the tree inventory on private lands and no demonstrable problem specific to trees, this to me feels like a tremendous overreach. The loss of trees due to housing development can be better accomplished through development controls and regulation. The loss of habitat in general is likely the single greatest factor in the decline of salmon and, as were now hearing, orca whales. Personally I’d rather see city effort directed at controlling development than over the few trees on private lands. Make a developer plant a new tree for every tree taken down. On the flip side, I’ve had several neighbors remove trees and while I have no knowledge of who they hired or their plans, I have my doubt that any permit was attained.

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  3. Need to answer question of view blockage. Once Again, the proposed plan put all the emphasis on trees and NONE on view blockage.

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  4. Eric, Thank you for a superb letter defining the problem facing those of us who love our trees but are appalled by the gradual over regulation imposed by our elected representatives.

    48 years ago I moved in with about 40 large fir and cedars. I recently regretfully removed (and with mixed emotions) the last 18 somewhat due to my fear of impending and harsh new tree ordinances.

    The last paragraph of your letter could well be in capital letters.

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  5. Gosh, this is a seriously dense and very long article, yet I’m not sure I feel better informed. The author writes that there are more trees now in the United States than there were 100 years ago. Sounds counterintuitive; I’d like to see the evidence for that assertion. The author also argues that folks in Manhattan function well in a landscape almost devoid of trees. —- but the author fails to mention the Manhattan oasis of Central Park. Or the Highline walkway. Or the riverside parks. Etc.

    There are actions or expenses or limitations that we accept in a community in the name of the “common good”. We support good schools, even though we may no longer had kids in the school system. We finance libraries. We improve waterfronts. We tend to the sick. We establish speed limits. We respond to an opioid abuse epidemic on our doorstep.

    And maybe we preserve town trees to help improve our town’s environment.

    Perhaps in a stellar community we all give a little bit to get a lot.

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  6. Amazing op from Mr. Soll. I grew up in Maine, where lumber is the dominant industry. The most influential reason there are more tree acreage in America is [in part] the computer boom and increased demand for printing paper. The story of the Lorax is ridiculous propaganda, because more trees are planted if more trees are needed, and the timber industry planted huge woodland reserves to satisfy future market demand. Bureaucracy and policing that surrounded Rhino horns, hunting and reserves lead to the extinction of black rhino, whereas lightly controlled exploitation (hunting) of Tigers has lead to the proliferation of Tigers in Texas of all places. Everyone loves trees, and views, but do added rules and bureaucrats also discourage people from planting trees, knowing that planting a tree can bring about unwanted attention if it ever needed to be cut down? Shoot, Shovel, Shut up was an unintended consequence of “rules”, and translates to urban tree conservation.

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  7. Well written letter Eric Soll. Definitely agree with your points regarding private property rights, reduce government bureaucracy and taxation. Thank you.

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