Edmonds Planning Board won’t send revised tree code to council quite yet

The Edmonds Citizen’s Planning Board discussed the 2020 draft tree code at its Wednesday night meeting.

The big item on Wednesday’s Edmonds Citizens Planning Board agenda was a detailed review of the latest iteration of the draft Edmonds Tree Code. While the board agreed it was an improvement, there remained several outstanding issues. Opting not to send the revised code to council at this time, the board tabled discussion and a potential decision until its January meeting, giving staff time to fine tune the plan to address these (see the full updated draft tree code here).

Developing a new tree code was one of the original tasks of the Edmonds Tree Board when it was created in 2010. Specifically, the board was charged to come up with a tree ordinance that would “preserve and protect existing trees, encourage planting of additional trees, safeguard trees on parcels where construction or renovation is occurring or planned to occur,” and in addition encourage Edmonds citizens to become “active stewards of the urban forest.” Prior to this, Edmonds did not have a tree code per se, with regulations related to trees scattered throughout other elements of the city code. A major goal of this rewrite was to bring all these pieces together into a comprehensive tree code (detailed background information is available here).

The year-long effort resulted in a draft tree code, which was reviewed by the Planning Board in 2015.  The draft sparked considerable public controversy, pitting those who favored a less-restrictive code against those advocating for higher levels of protection and preservation of Edmonds’ urban forest.  Ultimately the Planning Board agreed that developing a tree code in the absence of guiding policy framework was like “putting the cart before the horse.” Instead, they recommended abandoning action on the tree code itself and instead develop an Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP) to guide the code development process.

Now in place, the main goal of the UFMP is to “maintain or enhance citywide canopy coverage” through updated tree regulations aimed at reducing clearcutting, changes to tree replacement requirements, and penalties for code violations. Further, it adopts a policy of no net loss to overall canopy coverage, ensures protection of trees in environmentally critical areas, and establishes a “tree bank” fund to cover the costs of plantings and other tree programs. The tree bank would be funded by donations and tree code violation penalty fees.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Senior Planner Kernan Lien presented a revised tree code developed within the UFMP framework. Focused primarily on new development (as opposed to existing private homes), the major provisions include the following:

    • Tree retention during development including exploring low impact development principles that may provide more flexibility in development to retain trees, specific tree retention standards during development, and providing incentives for tree retention.
    • Establishing a tree fund into which development contributions or tree penalties can be tracked and the proceeds spent on tree planting and preservation
    • Reviewing penalties for illegal tree cutting
    • Moving the main tree regulations for private development into the Natural Resources title of the City’s development code
    • Reviewing the existing permitting structure and exemptions for tree removal on currently developed property.

More details are available in the 2020 Edmonds Tree Regulations Topic matrix.

Lien’s presentation included a number of scenarios examining sample development projects comparing impacts under the original code with those under the proposed changes (see the full PowerPoint here).

The presentation was immediately followed by public comments.

Anna West commented that the proposed code does not address preservation of water views, and the potential loss to property values as trees grow and block these.

Bill Phipps pointed out that the code addresses the impact of development on trees, but does not address the issue of trees on already developed land.

His remarks were echoed by Eric Thuesen, who noted that more than 90% of Edmonds is already developed and that “everyone should be part of this – the danger of losing trees is as great on private property and undeveloped property.”

Lora Hein suggested that because the urban forest is vital to health and quality of life, a moratorium should be place on tree cutting until the code can be finalized.

Richard Bologna asked how the fair market value of a tree [which determines the impact fees and fines for code violation] is determined.

Steve Zemke suggested that the code include a timeline on tree retention, requiring that trees retained during development to not be cut for a certain number of years.

With public comments concluded, the Board proceeded with its own discussion of the proposed draft code.

Major points brought out include the monetary fine structure and the “in lieu of” fees that developers can pay allowing them to cut additional trees. Board member Alicia Crank argued that this gives developers a way around the codes, and that “developers tend to be OK with paying in lieu fees” as part of the cost of development.

Other discussion centered on the issue of view preservation, with suggestions that included encouraging owners to think about mature heights before planting a tree and that hedges, which can also block views, be subjected to regulatory control similar to that applied to fences.

In the end, the board was split on whether the fee structure should stay as proposed or should be revised, and the specifics of how to apply the formulas for tree retention and replacement during development to best achieve the overall goal of no net loss of tree canopy. In this regard, board member Carreen Rubenkonig recommended looking at the methodology used by Snohomish County.

In light of these, the board agreed to not send the draft tree code to council, but rather table the discussion until the January meeting. In the interim, Lien will look at similar regulations in effect at the county level and come back with modifications in January.

Full video of the meeting will be available shortly on the City of Edmonds Meeting Portal website.

8 Replies to “Edmonds Planning Board won’t send revised tree code to council quite yet”

  1. In my opinion, it is unlikely that this code (as written) will have much of an impact on canopy retention. The foundation of this code, as I understand it, is that developers (who clear-cut lots for expediency & density) is to *incentivize* the developer to not cut all of the trees by making it financially painful. It is very unlikely this will work. Developers will simply consider these penalties as a “cost of business” and pass it on to the pricing of the new houses. Planting some additional puny replacement trees will have little positive impact on the environment for many years to dome. Habitat is disappearing rapidly.
    We are now significantly increasing the density of buildings on lots. There is no way that mature, significantly sized trees will exist on lots where houses are built so close together. Look at what happened on the lot at the corner of Pine and 9th. Refer to the photos I submitted in my letter to the MEN Editor dated Jan 6, 2019 titled “The declining Edmonds Tree Canopy”. That lot had a single house with huge mature trees. It now has THREE million+ dollar houses. The same thing happened on the corner of Spruce & 7th.
    Do we believe that given the price of those houses that the developer will care if he has to pay a penalty of a few thousand dollars for cutting a tree? These are only *examples* of what I see happening all over Edmonds; clear-cut after clear-cut.
    I am sad to say that I doubt very much that we humans are going to do much to protect our environment other than make token efforts. In almost every case, in the end it all boils down to one thing: $$$$$

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    1. I totally agree with you Chris. The big tree ship has sailed and it isn’t coming back; tree laws or no tree laws. As you can see from some of the comments of board members, this is just a way for the city to become a de-facto home owner’s association, as much about protecting water views as well as what few big trees are left. This is an incompatible and impossible task; being taken on by a bunch of well meaning citizens; who really don’t know what they are doing by creating another unneeded and mostly unwanted fee and permit mess. Few if any trees will be saved as a result of this; but the city will get more fees and the ability to be more of an intrusion in citizens lives.

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  2. I am curious as to whether there are any tree scientists being consulted currently. If there has been no scientific assessment since 2015 any decisions now regarding the health of the tree population is certainly outdated. I’ve been alarmed at how many trees have died in Yost Park and through the ravine north of Main Street over these last 5 years. I lived on Main along the ravine for over 9 years and witnessed how it and Yost Park went from lush, thick trees, mostly alders, to wide open sky with many dead, falling trees. Part of the ravine issue is probably the invasion of blackberry plants that cover the entire floor, the english ivy that is crawling all over everything and the mountain beavers that seem to have burrowed more openly and freely. I encourage people that may not have walked thru the park or down Main for a while to do so and take a good look.
    Science has shown however that the network of tree roots in wooded areas allow trees to nourish one another. When that network is contaminated or torn apart damage to all of the trees is possible. They rely on one another. Killing a majority of established trees and leaving a few token trees to appease human standards is not a good way of caring for or about the health of any old trees that do remain.

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  3. The new owner of a small apt on Elm Way had people come in a Saturday and cut down a HUGE beautiful tree that hundreds of birds use yearly. He also had them terribly trim other trees on the lot leaving on a small bit of growth in top of each. How do we find out if he had the city’s ok to take down that huge tree. All the neighbors were so upset about it.

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  4. I want to make one clarification crystal clear (especially after reading Mr. Wright’s comment). I am not against having the tree code. In fact I support the idea of having the code and making developers pay to take down excessive numbers of trees and attempting to control what people do with mature trees. At least the money can be used to benefit the city.

    All I was trying to say is that if the only deterrent to clear-cutting is having to pay a penalty, many developers will do it anyway and accept the price for doing it. I am not nearly as concerned about individuals cutting a tree down on their own property as I am about developers wiping out entire swaths of trees to make big bucks on houses.

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    1. Edmonds is now and will continue to be about developers wiping out big swathes of trees to make big bucks on houses. An irritating tree code won’t change that; but Edmonds will do it anyway, because it feels good. Sort of like doubling the fines on ordinances you have no intention of enforcing to any meaningful extent.

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  5. A board member recommended looking at the methodology used by Snohomish County. Since 2014 I might add. The County annual report for 2019 contains the following statement:
    ” …the regulations are flexible enough to accommodate different site conditions within the urban growth areas. It also indicates that the regulations are producing both canopy retention and new canopy creation within urban residential areas to help mitigate the inevitable loss of tree canopy from development on previously undeveloped urban sites.”

    I would like to see Edmonds NOT reinvent the wheel but basically copy the Snohomish County tree code update of 2014. The County has already done the heavy lifting of developing this code and monitoring it’s effectiveness. There is no good reason other than pride of ownership to invent our own new tree code when a good one already has been on place since 2014 at the County level.

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  6. Check out the Tree Code Revisions that the Town of Woodway passed earlier this year! Not surprisingly, a number of residents on one of our ‘‘premium’ view street (very high property values – the same street that the Woodway mayor lives on) were the immediate beneficiaries. Dozens of trees were approved for removal, some under the guise of ‘stabilizing the slope”. Don’t discount the power of your right to a “Public Records Request”! And realize, ‘Tree Code revisions are all about big fees that the powerful owners can pay to preserve their views and improve their property values, while sacrificing other neighborhood values. Don’t be deceived, this is ALL about the views of the super-rich.

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