Commentary: The declining Edmonds tree canopy

The following was submitted to the Edmonds Tree Board. It is being republished here by permission of the author.

It is sad to watch the ever-increasing numbers of beautifully treed lots in Edmonds being clear-cut by developers. This is a very emotional public topic to be sure. At last year’s city council meetings, private citizens expressed deep concerns about their ability to manage their own property. Fair enough. This letter is not about those individual rights.

What is disturbing today is not an individual Edmonds citizen who wants to cut a tree in his yard, but rather, out-of-town developers who come in and buy a piece of property for speculation purposes. For the sake of expediency and to maximize profits, standard practice seems to be to clear-cut the entire lot, including trees that sit on the very edge of the property line that may not even be in the way of construction equipment. A developer will probably argue that they need to cut every single tree, bush and shrub because they could potentially infringe on the new owner’s view or because they need to put in a driveway or utilities. In some cases, those claims could be true, but what is sad is that there appears to be no analysis at all on the impact of removing existing mature trees against the essential construction needs of building the new house or group of houses.

We need to think about where this is all headed and the speed with which it is happening.  Do we really believe that those puny replacement trees and grasses that developers replant are going to offset the huge canopy losses we are experiencing? We need to think seriously about the rate of canopy loss versus the number of years, if not decades, it will take to replenish it.

Are we connecting the dots with regards to our future? At last year’s Bird Fest, the Audubon Society reported that there are several species of birds (European Starling , House Sparrow, Rock Dove) that are now extinct in Edmonds. Whether this extinction is due to loss of habitat, global warming or other environment impacts is unclear, but I would posit that the loss of trees is a precipitating factor. There are probably many other examples of how mature tree loss impacts our environment, our lives, and the lives of our fellow earthlings.

The City’s Urban Forest Management Plan is focused almost completely on trees owned by the city. However, city-owned trees are not the ones being cut down in large scale. The trees vulnerable to the developer’s chain saw are on private lots over which, to my understanding, neither the city nor the tree board have control.

A painful example of this tree loss can currently be witnessed on the corner of 9thand Pine (this letter is not specifically about that lot).  Where once grew tall, beautiful, mature pines, every single tree has now been cut down (see photos). Was any thought at all given to the possibility that a few of the trees — namely those situated on the edge of the property which, in all likelihood, would not impede construction — could have been spared the chainsaw? Is it, in the end, solely about money, profit, and construction expediency?

There is another heavily treed lot on the corner of Spruce and 7th that recently had property markers set. Is this going to be the next Edmonds canopy ravage? I am betting we will be seeing yet another huge clear-cut lot before too long.

Again, the concern being raised here is not about the property rights of the individual citizen, but about the  lack of regard for our fragile environment on the part of developers who have no vested interest in not only this city, but for the environment as a whole. For them, it’s all about the money.

It is my hope that this casual disregard towards our mature trees is not an unstoppable trend, and that the tree board, city council and concerned citizens can work together to develop a strategy that will not just stop, but reverse this trend. Let’s stay vigilant, increase awareness, and keep the light shining on this issue!

— By Chris Walton

The author lives in Edmonds

26 Replies to “Commentary: The declining Edmonds tree canopy”

  1. We had a chance to address immigration in the early 90’s. This is what you get. An extra million citizens a year, plus their kids. More traffic, more development, less trees. Get use to this country growing to 400 million people and the globe growing to 11 billion people. But don’t worry, you’ll be able to go for a walk in pristine untouched woods with your VR goggles.

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  2. There needs to be a market for trees. Bans on cutting discourage people from planting. Trees offer a public service and I wonder if there are any systems out there that subsidize planting and maintaining trees. What if the number of trees on your property translated to a tax break? Great read.

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  3. Chris – What a well written and proactive note to the Tree Board! I have been concerned with the same issue as we see more lots being clear-cut as a precursor to development. In my view it would be great if the Tree Board and/or City Council could facilitate open discussion on current state, issues and improvement strategy/actions across all interested parties (developers, residents and others). The sooner the better.

    Thanks for sharing the note – very inspiring!

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  4. Also, the recent development (still under construction) at 188th St SW & 88th Ave W (Seaview neighborhood) clear cut the entire property, which was previously a single lot with a large treed area in back of the single home. Four mega-homes are being built on the lot. The homes adjacent to this lot (East & South side) have now had their home environment changed significantly and permanently, with the pocket forest removed.

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  5. While I agree with most everything said I cannot help but point out that European Starlings, House Sparrows, and Rock Doves (pigeons) are all invasive species that are doing quite well in Edmonds. Thanks this particular point there must be some mistake.

    Having said that the loss of trees in our forest community is truley tragic for a number of birds and small animals. The Stella’s Jay and Northern Flicker are both vital elements of the area’s character that require mature evergreen growth to thrive.

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  6. In the Seaview area, this too is happening and it makes many of us very sad. Drive by a lot on 188th and 88th and all you will see is vacant land with houses being built. Over 40 conifers were razed and most were mature large trees similar to what is depicted in these photos. The Administration needs to update its code for short plats and planned developments (low impact development which saves trees). Many of us have been waiting a long time to see that code update occur. In the interim, developers continue to cut down trees with no large tree replanting requirements.

    Lastly, the City of Edmonds Tree Board is a volunteer commission and its’ mission is to educate citizens regarding the value of trees, proper selection of trees (Right Tree, Right Place), and correct methods for planting and caring for trees. Their role in the Urban Forest Management Plan (which is now in year three of completion) has only been to offer assistance and advise to the Administration and recently a task force has been created to attempt to finish the draft product provided by the consultants.

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    1. And who they know ihn the Mayor’s office or on Council who can assist them in getting past the already-restrictive development and tree management rules that ordinary citizens currently must live with to manage their own properties for the safety of their own homes.

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      1. Karen, actually the code is pretty vague on trees and developments unless the development is in or near a critical area. Many of us have been awaiting the updated code that would and could require trees to remain on lots while being developed. The Administration writes the code as well as manages the development. Council has asked for code updates as well as completion of the Urban Forest Management Plan (which turned out to be terribly inadequate) which when completed should assist in code updating and writing.

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        1. Ms. Buckshnis, I appreciate how you keep up with stories as well as comments, and contribute, on MyEdmondsNews. Thank you for your intentional efforts to expose yourself to diverse perspectives and to share yours. I often agree with you, but with regard to your reference to the City’s code as “vague” on this issue, I must dissent.

          Karen’s right. There’s an entire section in ECDC 18.45, titled “Land Clearing and Tree Cutting,” which should be applied/enforced outside of critical areas. There are some specific exceptions to the provisions of 18.45 applicable to this story: (A) A single-family lot with some improvements (e.g. an existing home) which may be subdivided (e.g. to create another home site), or (B) a vacant parcel for a single family home.

          With regard to developments of multiple home sites, ECDC 18.45.035 offers a “Procedural Exemption” for projects subject to review by the ADB. However, that review is to be in accordance with the terms of 18.45, which includes specific language, “Trees shall be retained to the maximum extent feasible.”

          Despite that edict, it’s clear (pardon the pun) what seems largely observed. It may be hard to determine whether it’s an unintended consequence of the current legislation leading the contractor to find a way justify removal of all trees to avoid risking violation of 18.45.050.H, or if it’s just another example of selective (or lack of) enforcement of existing laws by the Planning Department (ref. 18.45.010) as Karen alluded to.

          The topic of this story is definitely not the Tree Board’s issue. Though along those lines, I wish there was an exemption in 18.45 and Title 23 to provide for remedy of Wrong Tree, Wrong Place without having to wait for it to meet an arborist’s definition of a “hazard.” And also that the definition of “Alteration” in 23.40 specifically included planting non-native species.

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      2. Brian, thank you for your detailed commentary and I will forward this information to the Administration as for as long as I have been on Council, it has only affected critical areas. Additionally, since this is not my area of expertise, I quoted an Administration person as this topic has come up numerous times at the Tree Board. A few years ago, Ms. Hope gave the Council a presentation on Low Impact Development where “trees and native vegetation” is worked into the planning of the short plat or PRD and that code has yet to be updated.

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  7. Hopefully the disappearance of birds mentioned in the letter is not a matter of “extinction”, but because the birds have more sense than us humans and left Edmonds in disgust and have now happily relocated to neighboring woodsy Woodway.

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  8. My husband and I moved from a well-treed almost acre in Meadowdale over 6 years ago. The property is still the same, but I wonder when it is sold again if major changes will take place. We had a wide variety of numerous birds and wild life. When we moved downtown to a condo, we had a good variety of birds, including hawks and blue herons across the street. Over the past six years, the variety has dwindled to about 4-5 at our feeder. Between habitat loss and climate change, I fear it will only get worse. I agree that changes and development are inevitable and necessary, but please, let us give pause before we move recklessly ahead without any though to what we are eliminating.

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  9. TreePeople to the rescue???

    I suggest Chris and the Tree Board contact TreePeople for help

    Andy began the program in 1973 to grow the “urban forest” in Los Angeles

    One of their programs was to plant, I think, 1 million(?) trees before the L.A. Olympics!

    While I agree that I would love to leave the mature trees – and the surrounding forest and critters – in place, I know that’s a losing fight

    We can however, work together, not only the City of Edmonds, but all of the urbanizing Puget Sound Region and grow “urban” forests

    https://www.treepeople.org/about

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  10. I think it makes sense for the city to have codes in place to properly balance construction and environmental impacts. But hopefully, it is developed on data, not anecdotal observations. It would be interesting to see real data that shows the actual change in Edmonds’ tree canopy over the last several decades (let’s say from 1950). I too live in Meadowdale and was shown pictures of this area (generally Cherry Hill) from the late 60’s, early 70’s. There were very few trees as a result of clearing for home construction. Today my home (built in ’73) is surrounded by large firs and cedars over 100 feet tall.

    My point is, if I use my myopic view of Edmonds, I could conclude that we are adding to the tree canopy (truth in my small world, but not in all of Edmonds). I’m not saying anecdotal accounts should be ignored, I hope the Tree Board and the Council will use more actionable information.

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    1. Mr. Shelton:

      As one who had previously been on the Steering Committee of the Edmonds Backyard Wildlife Habitat project, I can assure you that the tree canopy in Edmonds is significantly decreasing not increasing. There are historical aerial photographs and data available. And there are citizens that have this info on-hand. I don’t want to mention names here for privacy reasons. But those involved with the Edmonds Native Plant Garden (near the Hatchery) and the Save Our Marsh group could put you in touch with those having this data.

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      1. Great! If historical photos and data are available and compiled, it would be very helpful to provide it here (or links to it if it’s too extensive) as part of the discussion for all to read (rather than I alone get it from you or some other group). Data, studies, etc. would help all of us to better understand the decisions our lawmakers may make. For example, what is the extent of the area the photographs were taken (are they focused on Edmonds’ downtown, the bowl, all of Edmonds, etc.? What’s the time span of the data/photos (5 years?, 20 years?, 60 years?)? Who did the analysis and what are their credentials? I’ll stop there.

        If we are going to make decisions that will impact Edmonds residents and the entire community, shouldn’t we provide more than anecdotes and general assurances?

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  11. In response to comments by Mr. Riel and Mr. Shelton: BIRD DECLINE: My information came from a Seattle Audubon-hosted presentation last year at the Anderson Center. Data came from a detailed 13 year study by Alan Mearns. CANOPY DECLINE: At public hearings last May, it was presented in the Urban Forest Master Plan that Edmonds has lost over 114 acres of canopy; or stated another way; > 6% since 2005.

    I do not claim to be an expert on either of these topics so I am not prepared to debate what was presented publicly by individuals who appear to be knowledgeable in their fields.

    Thank-you to all who have participated in this important City discourse. I appreciate the dialog and it is great that people are questioning where information is coming from. We need more of that.

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    1. Thank you for this info, Mr. Walton! I’ll search the web to see if I can find this study because I’d be very interested in its analysis. Maybe there are sources listed in it that would help in looking longer term. Although thirteen years is good, as an engineer (and a very old person), I like to see a wider look at what is occurring long-term.

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  12. It is always very sad when large fir and maple trees are suddenly removed from our community. But that is the unchangeable reality and tradeoff we have to deal with when we live in a growing and economically vibrant city. However, we can collectively do much more to mitigate these losses than we are now, by adding many more urban scale trees to both our private properties and public spaces of Edmonds.

    Large fir, maple and oak trees unfortunately are increasingly becoming bad neighbors in our increasingly dense community (major wind and root damage potential, intense shading of neighbors’ homes and solar panels, view blockage etc. I have added numerous new smaller maple, cherry, dogwood and crabapple trees to my own property in recent years. They fit in beautifully and provide wonderful foliage and bird habitat that changes with the season. At the same time, none of them will grow more 25 feet high (but will spread up to 20 feet wide), which protects my neighbors views while still providing lots of beautiful tree canopy for everyone to enjoy. We need a major public education campaign to promote this approach to adding more tree canopy in Edmonds.

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  13. I joined the tree board mainly because I think more education is needed. I have written articles for My Edmonds News and intend to return to that effort. The Tree board has produced a pamphlet showing how people can open up a tree for view improvement without cutting down the tree. Our motto is “Right Tree, Right place” and we are in the process of producing a pamphlet with examples of right trees. I was required to put in natives next to the stream on our property and our garden has a much improved tree canopy. A campaign to make lawn areas smaller and plant lower growing trees would improve our tree canopy. We need to identify areas good for tree planting..

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  14. I see several wonderful new candidates for participation in the Tree Board among the author and commenters! Please keep it in mind and apply when openings are available- we have a very highly functioning board that is both concerned about the environment and the role trees play in it… and aware of the balancing act that is ours with regards to views and the impact of development.

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  15. One of the issues of trees that is often overlooked is safety. The wrong tree in the wrong place can and has caused damage to our electrical and communications systems. A wrong tree that leans toward a street or private property presents a known danger to public safety. We need ways to identify and take care of dangerous trees that are a known threat to public safety.

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  16. In some ways this is a very simple problem. Saving more trees from development means less housing can be built. You can’t save the tree canopy and absorb 1 thousand new residents a year. You have to build the housing somewhere.

    There is only so much land available to build on in Edmonds, You can go high rise on the land that is already cleared [tear down single family houses and zone for apartments?], and thus save the trees, but then you are going to have 6 story apartments at Five Corners and downtown, and anywhere else they can be squeezed in.

    The real underlying problem, as it is for almost everything on the planet, is too many people. Is there going to be any room for trees and wildlife anywhere with 11 billion people living here on Earth?

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  17. Totally agree Dave! I am in S.F. This week and it is really bad! This is not just a Seattle/Edmonds issue. It will be a challenge to resist pushing for more density which is an approach that only gets worse.
    The current level of growth isn’t sustainable.

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