Fate of five trees on Durbin Drive hinges on arborist report and city staff review

Although the sweet gum trees are not native to the Pacific Northwest, they have been on Durbin Drive for decades.

Ann Christiansen is advocating to retain five sweet gum trees on public right of way along Durbin Drive that could be removed to build a proposed three-story, 17-unit apartment building in the 600 block of Dayton Street.

“I’m heartbroken. My husband and I live just north of this property and watch the change of seasons on those trees,” said Christiansen.

However, her concern isn’t just aesthetic. Christiansen said mature trees provide temperature control, noise reduction, privacy, and filter out light pollution from streetlamps. Further, they provide clean air, aid in water management, and promote mental and physical health.

Christiansen wrote to the City of Edmonds Tree Board about her concerns and questioned whether the trees needed removal.

The five sweet gum trees are planted between a narrow walkway and Durbin Drive next to a house that will be converted into a multifamily dwelling.

In an email response to Christiansen, City of Edmonds Urban Forest Planner Deb Powers said, “From my perspective, the trees most worthy of retention are those that will be part of a healthy, sustainable urban forest 5, 10, 20 plus years from now, not just barely survive construction impacts.”

Powers explained that because the trees are in the city right of way, they are under public works and parks department management. She added that retaining existing trees with multifamily development is difficult due to the larger structural lot coverage included in zoning laws, such as fire lanes and minimum parking requirements.

“The tree code recognizes this with a lower tree retention threshold for multifamily zoning (ECDC 23.10.060.C),” Powers said in her email. “Also, with multifamily development, the tree replacement standards are dictated by the landscaping requirements/buffer standards (ECDC 20.13) for the zoning, not necessarily by the existing trees that are removed.”

The alignment of a once-straight curb down Durbin Drive has become disjointed from tree roots over the years.

In her email to Christiansen, Powers also wrote that from Google Street View, the trees appeared to have severe root restrictions, and added that sweet gum trees were “a horrible street tree species selection because they’re brittle-wooded and notorious for dropping large branches on parked vehicles with any wind/snow.”

Kelsey Foster, City of Edmonds public information officer, said, “The Public Works Department and City Clerk’s Office completed an initial search and could not find any claims or other documentation specifically related to vehicle damage caused by the subject trees. A public records request may allow for a more comprehensive search.”

Powers added in her email to Christiansen, “From my understanding, Parks Field Arborist Debra Dill assessed these trees as not worthy of retention, and I’d have to agree.”

However, this statement does not mean Langley-based GBH Holdings, which owns the property next to the sweet gums, will remove the trees to build the multifamily residence. Foster said the arborist report the City of Edmonds has requested from GBH is scoped to evaluate how to protect the root structure during construction “using best management practices to minimize potential construction impacts.”

A once-level sidewalk now resembles rolling hills of brick and tree roots.

Powers also said in her email that the red-leafed Japanese maple – another tree of concern mentioned in Christiansen’s email — is slowly dying from verticillium wilt, a fungal infection in trees and plants from ground soil. She said that the condition is difficult to control.

“The location of the tree makes it impossible to retain, nor a good candidate for transplanting since it would likely succumb to the disease/transplant stress,” Powers said.

Regarding the Japanese maple, Christiansen said, “I get it. They are building an apartment building on the entire lot, so they really couldn’t save it. Plus, that’s on the developer’s property.”

When asked what qualifies a tree to be preserved, Foster said in an email, “Tree protection, preservation, and replacement requirements differ slightly for right-of-way (ROW) trees and those on private property. For ROW trees, current code/policies function to protect existing street trees by regulating their maintenance and removal (ECDC 18.85).”

If the mature sweet gum trees need to be replaced, what will they be replaced with?

“We do not know yet if the sweet gums will need to be replaced,” Foster replied, adding that “the development proposal – including the potential removal/replacement of the street trees – is still undergoing review by city staff.”

— Story and photo by Rick Sinnett


  1. Please keep the Sweet Gum trees. The value of their shade alone makes them “worthy of retention” to Edmonds residents.

  2. The Edmonds war on trees continues… If these trees must go, can the developers be required to replace them with more suitable native trees?

    The article states that the trees “could be removed to build a proposed three-story, 24-unit apartment building.” Yet a caption states that they are located “next to a house that will be converted into a multifamily dwelling.” Which is it? Will it be yet another hideous box for people storage with no parking and no setback from the street?

    Poor old Edmonds.

    1. My understanding is that the existing house and possibly the trees will be torn down and a multi-unit apartment building will go up in its’ place. We will just have to wait and see what happens. I would hate to see the trees be removed. In the 17 years, I’ve lived in Edmonds, I’ve seen way too many trees be removed for new housing. Yes, I know we need affordable housing, but build it along Aurora (tear down the closed motels and build affordable housing in their place) or build new homes on existing empty lots along Edmonds Way.

  3. There is a detailed two page discussion about “Street Trees” in the Edmonds City Council’s Agenda Packet for tomorrow night’s meeting, September 5, 2023. It can be found on pages 96 and 97 of the Agenda Packet.

    You may want to ask if the current issue is really whether the trees will be part of a healthy, sustainable urban forest 5, 10, 20 plus years from now, or if the current issue is that the trees are alive, owned by the public and must be protected during the private construction project.

    You may also want to ask if the laws in ECDC 23.10.060 apply only to the trees on the site to be developed or to both the trees on the site to be developed PLUS the abutting right-of-way.

    You may want to let the Director of Public Works know your feelings about these trees. Chapter 18.85 ECDC gives the Director of Public Works the authority to have City employees remove street trees without getting a permit.

    1. Ken –

      Thank you for your thoughtful response! I confess I plagiarised some of your words here and emailed the council. Trying to be the “squeaky wheel.”

  4. At our house are 7 big legacy trees, 2 cedar, then pine and fir. All are 60-80′ or more and were wisely sustained when the house was built. Lake Ballinger provides a substantial water table and the roots mostly go straight down without laterally upending city property. Despite the mess they make and sap they drop, our house and land stay cooler in part due to the insulation and heat-sink these big trees provide. Honestly despite the mess, trees like ours should stay in place because the upsides clearly dominate the equation. It’s difficult to make that same assessment with these gum trees on Durbin, they appear crowded and they clearly interfere with best use of the land. New trees and brush will grow when planted and will have a replacement benefit. I’m a tree hugger for sure, but I don’t appreciate it when trees or “our canopy” are used as leverage against sensible lot development. Instead of rallying against change, help create the change we need.

  5. This isn’t affordable housing just a barebones apartment building with market rate rents. This property is in the BD2 zone which requires a commercial component as the code requires it to be mixed use. However the planning department guided this building permit application while finalizing the BD2 ordinance so as to assist the developer in avoidance of complying with the enacted BD2 ordinance requirements. An unfortunate ending for the historic old Underwriters building.

  6. Hey City of Edmonds, why not keep the trees, you’re always saying we need to keep the tree canopy why not here? If I wanted to take down the trees on my property you would have a fit and say no to the permit, probably since there was no revenue in it for the city, like multiple apts. that generate tax dollars – do the right thing fix the sidewalks and save the trees.

  7. I sent the following to City Council:
    The trees proposed to be cut along the City right-of-way, adjacent to the proposed housing unit, next to the Library parking lot, should NOT be allowed.

    Enough! The city needs to take a harder stand on saving the canopy. Let’s not rationalize this decision just to make it “convenient” for the developer. Also, let’s not take down mature trees with the promise to plant a few more baby trees somewhere else. This is a slippery slope and keeps repeating itself all over town.

  8. One of the culprits here is zero lot line zoning where the building wall is right at the property line with zero setback. A small setback, even 5 or 10 feet, would allow the trees to be saved. A setback also provides room for things like stormwater treatment, bike parking or wider sidewalks. Zero lot line zoning is very popular with the developers and planners because more building can be squeezed onto each property and allows these new buildings to crowd in Ballard style.

    Many of our arterials (not just Hwy 99) will have new boxes crammed in right at the edge of the sidewalk unless things change. I think the City should require a front setback everywhere, even on Aurora. Developers will hate it but it is a change that is needed to avoid becoming just like Ballard or Shoreline.

    1. I agree. The new apartment building, Anthology, on 212th is a case in point. It creates an intimidating, canyon effect. Same with some over on Edmonds Way. It’s all about bang for the buck rather than aesthetics and livability. Shoreline is becoming horrible because of the many zero lot line apartment buildings. Surely, we can do better. Require set backs and step backs with ample green space out front and ample spacing between buildings.

  9. In case you don’t recognize the location: these trees are on the West side of the West parking lot at the Anderson Center library downtown between Main and Dayton, and between 6th & 7th.

    I am curious whether Edmonds folks generally feel that whatever tree code applies to private property also should apply to City-owned property. Does that make sense to you? So far, we don’t have any private-property tree code. We are considering it. I’m wondering whether our considerations should apply the same code to private and publicly-owned property

  10. J Zipper’s comment really gets to the essence of this issue. We are in an untenable situation. There is a drive to build as much housing as possible. Of course, this is a losing proposition because there will never be enough. To achieve endless density, we (and the state) create codes and rules that allow for this extreme density. High density does not support our needs for a viable natural environment (that includes trees). As long as we have codes that define almost no setbacks and we have very weak architectural design requirements, the future of our beautiful town is bleak. Little by little, we chip away the things that make Edmonds beautiful. Unless our city leaders change rules and regulations, this will bleak future will continue. Lots and lots of cement!

  11. Hi Ann. I walked by the trees this morning to check it out in person. It looks like a very interesting situation. I found some survey stakes that MAY indicate part of the building is also in Durbin Lane. I’m pretty sure Durbin Lane was not part of the original plat of Edmonds, so it would be interesting to know if and when it was dedicated to the public and how wide Durbin Lane is. The City’s Official Street Map indicates Durbin Lane is similar in width to Dayton Street.

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