Council gets down to details of draft tree code; OKs pay raise for Acting Chief Lawless

City Environmental Programs Manager Kernen Lien, upper right, discusses Edmonds’ existing tree canopy at the Jan. 26 Edmonds City Council meeting.

How the City of Edmonds should manage its tree canopy and protect its existing urban forests was the topic of conversation Tuesday night as the Edmonds City Council began diving into the details of draft tree code regulations.

The council also approved a salary increase for Acting Police Chief Jim Lawless, whose appointment has been extended an additional six months while the city conducts a new national search for a police chief. A long-time assistant chief, Lawless was appointed acting chief a year ago. During a previous search, Lawless was one of two finalists for the permanent chief position that Mayor Mike Nelson ultimately offered to another candidate — Sauk Suiattle Tribal Chief Sherman Pruitt — but that offer — approved by the city council on a 4-3 vote — was withdrawn after discrepancies were discovered. Lawless announced Jan. 14, that he wouldn’t be applying again.

While the city had initially proposed offering a pay increase of one step on the salary band, Councilmember Kristiana Johnson proposed that Lawless receive two steps, at a total additional cost of $4,187 to his $175,899 salary, which will be prorated for the time he remains as acting chief.

“I believe the council owes a debt of gratitude to Acting Chief Lawless and this would be one way in which we can express that gratitude,” Johnson said. The motion passed unanimously.

Councilmember Kristiana Johnson — second row, far left — makes the case for giving Acting Police Chief Jim Lawless a larger-than-recommended raise.

On the topic of tree regulations, efforts to develop a city tree code began 11 years ago under the all-volunteer Edmonds Tree Board, and in recent years the work has been conducted by city staff and consultants. Prior to that, 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 the code rewrite has been to bring all these pieces together into a comprehensive tree code.

In describing the history of project, Environmental Programs Manager Kernen Lien told the council Tuesday night that when the issue was reviewed by the Planning Board in 2015, “it gathered a lot of attention.” 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 Edmonds Planning Board recommended abandoning action on the tree code itself and instead develop an Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP) to guide the code development process.

The UFMP was adopted in July of 2019, and the tree code now under consideration “would implement portions of this Urban Forest Management Plan,” Lien said.

The main goal of the tree code update, he explained, “was to improve tree retention with new development on private property. One of the main complaints that the City of Edmonds hears with regard to tree removal are sites that are clearcut when they are subdivided,” he said.

Lien noted that in anticipation of tree code approval early in 2021, the city council in November passed a four-month moratorium on subdivisions containing eight or more “significant” trees per 10,000 square feet of lot size.

The proposed code also would implement low-impact development principles, would establish a tree fund into which development contributions or tree penalties can be tracked — with the proceeds spent on tree planting and preservation — and provide updates to definitions, the city’s existing permitting process and the penalties for tree cutting.

Lien explained that the code supports several goals of the Urban Forest Managment Plan, including maintaining or enhancing citywide tree canopy coverage. The tree canopy — essentially, the part of a city that is shaded by trees — covers 1,844 acres of Edmonds, which is 9.5 square miles, or 6,095 acres. The vast majority of that canopy (83%) is on private residential property. Public land, such as parks, makes up nearly 13% of the canopy with the remainder (4%) is on private property.

Tuesday night’s discussion focused on the concept of “no net loss” to the overall canopy, but Lien stressed that the draft tree code regulations won’t be enough to prevent further tree loss. It will be key for the city to incentivize planting trees on private property by having a tree giveaway program and/or tree vouchers for use in the city,” he said.

Councilmember Laura Johnson suggested that the city should go beyond “no net loss” and instead be looking at ways to increase the canopy cover. Both Lien and Development Services Director Shane Hope stressed that increasing the canopy cover will take more than code changes. Lien talked about the need for “a holistic approach,” including education about the issue and offering incentives for property owners to plant trees.

Hope noted that the city will have much more work to do once the tree code is approved by council. “This is an important start, but it’s not the end,” Hope said.

With a focus on trees impacted by new development, Lien said the priorities are first, to retain existing trees; second, to replace trees that are removed; and third, to ensure developers pay for trees that are removed but not replaced — otherwise known as a “fee-in-lieu of” option — at a cost of $1,000 per tree.

Lien then went through a long list of tree retention requirements, exemptions and prohibitions — along with a summary of proposed penalties — which you can see in this presentation.

During council discussion, Councilmember Luke Distelhorst asked if staff’s eventual intent was to take a closer look at tree regulations for existing private properties. Lien replied that the current draft code focuses on clearcutting for development because that was the primary concern expressed by residents. “That’s what we decided to tackle first,” he said. “The looking at the removal of trees on all properties was one of the high contention points on the last tree code update.”

The Edmonds Planning Board, which reviewed the draft tree code before sending it to the council, did “indicate a desire to have that (issue of trees on other properties) forwarded back to them,” Lien said. “More will have to be done,” he added, “to meet that no net loss.” Among other next steps that have been discussed are implementing a “heritage trees program,” which would recognize significant trees citywide, plus financial incentives — such as a reduction in property taxes or stormwater or utilities fees —  that the city could provide homeowners “to retain trees on their site,” Lien said.

A public hearing on the tree code draft is scheduled for the Tuesday, Feb. 2 council meeting.

In other actions, the council

– Approved on a 5-2 vote (Councilmembers Kristiana Johnson and Diane Buckshnis opposed) a revised Council Code of Conduct.

– Approved an employment agreement amendment for City Council Legislative/Executive Assistant Maureen Judge.

– Approved building and fire code updates to bring the city into compliance with new state standards.

— By Teresa Wippel


  1. Question: Does the code address the problem of alder trees? They seem to have a built-in time limit and are constantly dying and falling over. I know they are supposed to put nitrogen back into the soil, but it would be nice to have a plan that would allow for their removal and replacement with more permanent trees.. Did the proposal address what type of tree people would like to see dominate our city?

  2. A $1000/tree fine to developers who cut clear cut trees is probably just an another minor expense in multi-million dollar housing projects. That cost will just be added to the overall project cost and I doubt it will be much of a deterrent.

  3. Thank you Teresa for your thorough coverage of the tree code presentation at the council meeting. I hope citizens will review it carefully and express their opinion at the Feb 2 hearing.

  4. Kristiana Johnson represents the people of Edmonds with grace, intelligence, and professional behavior. We are very fortunate to have such a council person! Thank you Kristiana!

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