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Monday, August 30, 2010

Seattle's DPD: We can't save a tree or grove of trees if somebody wants to cut it down

Longtime readers and supporters of NPI know that one of the most important qualities that sets us apart from other organizations is that we really try to walk our talk, or practice what we preach.

We detest lip service because it is insincere and empty. Platitudes sound good, but they ultimately have no meaning, for actions speak louder than words. That's why we do our banking with a credit union, do most of our printing on recycled paper made from one hundred percent post-consumer content with solid ink, and rely on free software to power our network and our phone system.

For several years now, one of our board members — Steve Zemke — has been at the forefront of efforts to get Seattle Public Schools and the City of Seattle to walk their "green" talk. Steve is an veteran activist who has led initiative campaigns to protect ratepayers from being bankrupted by unnecessary nuclear power plants, encourage recycling of disposable containers, and automatically adjust the minimum wage so it is closer to a living wage.

In 2008, he discovered that Seattle Public Schools was planning to raze a grove of trees at Ingraham High School (which is publicly-owned property) to make room for a campus expansion. The project was among those included in a ballot measure approved by voters the previous year, known as the Building Excellence III capital bond. Unfortunately, as Steve quickly learned, there was and still is nothing excellent about the campus expansion that the district conceived for Ingraham.

Steve and his neighbors have been tirelessly fighting an uphill, multi-year battle to save the Ingraham trees, against great adversity. They've been bullied by Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson's corrupt administration. They've been scorned by Seattle Public Schools' board of directors. And they've been ignored by the City of Seattle's Department of Planning and Development (DPD), which has repeatedly rubber-stamped the project instead of exercising its authority to require changes so Ingraham can get a new building without losing its trees.

District officials could have averted the whole battle by simply asking Ingraham High's neighbors for input before designing the project. But they did not. Instead of consulting with the community, they did all their planning behind closed doors, and then tried to dot their i's and cross their t's quietly, figuring that they could do what they wanted. And when neighbors, including Steve, did object, the district reacted defensively and arrogantly. Rather than admit they had make a mistake, district officials went to great extremes to invent excuses for why they could not change or modify the proposed expansion to avoid razing the tree grove.

After realizing that the district administration had no intention of listening, Steve and his neighbors created a petition to demonstrate the community's concern. The petition was signed by then-King County Executive Ron Sims and state Senators Ed Murray and Ken Jacobsen, along with numerous candidates for elected office.

After accumulating more than half a thousand signatures in just a few short weeks, the petition was presented to the Seattle School Board on April 9th, 2008. By that time, Steve had begun to suspect that the board had zero interest in flexing its oversight muscles and insisting that the campus expansion project go back to the drawing board. He appealed to the board member who represents the neighborhood where Ingraham is located, Peter Maier, with no success.

He was likewise given the cold shoulder by Steve Sundquist, who at the time was serving as the president of the board of Climate Solutions, one of the Northwest's best known environmental groups.

(Sundquist is still on Climate Solutions' board, and we have long wondered why somebody who serves as an officer for an organization committed to advocating "practical and profitable solutions to global warming" would sign off on the needless destruction of more than five dozen mature douglas fir and western red cedar trees on public property he oversees).

Eight of Seattle's nine city councilmembers subsequently sent a letter to the Seattle School Board asking Sundquist, Maier, Sherry Carr, Michael DeBell, Mary Bass, Cheryl Chow, and Harium Martin-Morris to consider alternative designs that would allow the campus to expand while leaving the tree grove intact and undisturbed. But still the board did not act.

Meanwhile, Ingraham neighbors continued to find evidence that the district's rationale for razing the tree grove was phony. As Steve wrote in May 2008:
The Seattle School District does not need to cut down any large trees to build the addition at Ingraham High School. The North side of Ingraham High School has an open grassy lawn that the school district has actually identified as a future building site in their master plan for Ingraham High School. Considering the magnitude of the impact on the current site that clear cuts 2/3 of a magnificent grove of trees, most reasonable persons would scratch their heads and ask, "Why don't you build the proposed addition there and save the trees?"
In August 2008, district officials withdrew their building permit applications with the City of Seattle and hired Weiss Tree Company to raze the grove. "As long as these applications are not pending, no city permits are required for removal of the trees, as none of those trees constitute 'exceptional trees' under city codes," Facilities Manager Fred Stephens wrote in a letter to neighbors.

Left with no other option, the neighbors sued the school district in King County Superior Court. The district moved to cut down the trees in the interim so that the case would be moot, but Judge John Erlick issued a temporary restraining order halting the tree-cutting. Two weeks later, while NPI staff were in Denver covering the Democratic National Convention, Erlick granted the neighbors an injunction which remains in effect today. The injunction prohibits the district from razing the grove until it obtains a master-use permit from the City of Seattle.

Instead of rethinking the Ingraham campus expansion, the district responded by simply refiling its permit application, still intending to displace the tree grove.

In early 2009, Seattle's Department of Planning and Development approved the district's plans, which Steve and his neighbors subsequently challenged. The City Council, meanwhile, passed an interim tree protection ordinance designed to close the loophole in city codes that the school district tried to exploit when it withdrew its building permit applications. Reflecting on the limitations of the city council's good intentions, Steve wrote in February 2009:
Once developers decide to build somewhere, saving trees is not a high priority of the city's Department of Planning and Development. In most cases trees always lose out to construction and development. The job of the DPD is to assist developers in their plans for construction and to gain approval for their projects. The interim tree ordinance still allows trees to be cut down during the development process, even if they are exceptional.
Steve's observation was prescient, because DPD is currently seeking public review and comment on proposed tree regulations that the City Council asked it to develop in May 2009. DPD's final report will be submitted to the City Council by Mayor Mike McGinn this autumn.

The proposed regulations are unfortunately a complete farce:
The proposal calls for ending all protection for mature trees in Seattle. It would rescind Director’s Rules 16-2008 which protects exceptional trees in Seattle.

It would also repeal the interim tree ordinance passed last year by the City Council which among other things protected tree groves and limited the number of trees which could be cut down in any given year. DPD’s proposal runs counter to Resolution 31138, passed by the Seattle City Council last year calling for strengthening trees protections, not weakening them. And it ignores most of the problems identified by the City Auditor in 2009 entitled “Management of City’s Trees Can be Improved.”
DPD's attitude is aptly summed up by the title of this post.

Basically, they're saying, we can't save a tree or a grove of trees if somebody wants to cut it down. Since when have the objectives of protecting urban canopy and fostering smart growth been mutually exclusive?

Reading through the frequently asked questions DPD produced (PDF) as an accompaniment to its proposed report, I was reminded of something I'd read in Suburban Nation a few years ago:
Like many state departments of transportation, Virgina's discourages its state roads from being lined with trees, which are considered dangerous. In fact, they are not called trees at all but FHOs: Fixed and Hazardous Objects. [Virgina Department of Transportation Regulations, 8/95 edition, table A-3-1. The manual adds that "every effort should be made to remove the tree rather than shield it with a guardrail."]
See the similarity? Virgina's DOT considers trees to be dangerous; Seattle's DPD considers them to be a nuisance. DPD's report basically recommends that property owners be encouraged to protect or plant trees, but not be required to. Forbidding property owners from cutting down exceptional trees, as well as requiring permits for tree-felling, "would place a substantial burden on property owners and could create a disincentive to retaining such trees", DPD says in its FAQ.

This is utter nonsense.

It's like arguing that requiring rigorous safety and environmental protection safeguards for offshore rigs would place a substantial burden on oil companies and could create a disincentive to drilling safely. The whole point of having and enforcing regulations is to minimize harm to the public interest.

Because trees can't be restored once they have been chopped down, it makes sense to require a permit for their removal.

A mature tree takes decades to grow. Many species of trees can live for centuries or even millennia. Some of the trees at the Ingraham grove, for instance, are older than the dilapidated school buildings they shadow.

Since DPD has no interest in protecting Seattle's trees, that responsibility should be given to another agency. Steve has suggested the Office of Sustainability and Environment, which seems like a natural choice. OSE could become DSEP... the Department of Sustainability and Environmental Protection, responsible for issuing tree permits and conducting environmental reviews of proposed development, leaving DPD free to concentrate on what its employees obviously consider to be their mission: helping property owners develop their property.

The Ingraham campus expansion serves as an ongoing case in point.

DPD continues to willingly rubber-stamp Seattle Public Schools' every move. The district is still stubbornly pursuing its ill-founded aims after more than two years of litigation. Although Steve and his neighbors succeeded last year in convincing a hearing examiner that DPD had violated Seattle Municipal Code in signing off on the destruction of the tree grove, that did not stop the district from resubmitting its plans yet again (with slight modifications), nor stop DPD from approving them.

The latest incarnation of the plans received the okay last month from the same hearing examiner who had previously scuttled them.

Steve and his neighbors plan to appeal the hearing examiner's decision in King County Superior Court... which is once again their last recourse.

Hopefully a judge will sensibly do what Maria Goodloe-Johnson's underlings, the SPS' board of directors, Mayor McGinn's DPD, and hearing examiner Ann Watanabe did not: Ensure the protection of the majestic trees at Ingraham High School. It's time that the Emerald City started saving the few green spaces it has left, rather than mindlessly permitting the destruction of valuable urban canopy.


OpenID sarajane46th said...

I am deeply disturbed that Seattle's policies are 100% pro-developer and anti-tree preservation, despite the wishes of the Seattle City Council.

I am also deeply disturbed that it takes the tenacity of a bulldog such as Steve Zemke and his neighbors to pursue this in court. The system should balance the concerns of neighbors with developers, but obviously it is stacked in favor of developers.

It is Mayor Greg Nickels who left us with no protections at all for our valuable older trees. Mayor McGinn should act quickly to fill this gap.

August 31, 2010 3:37 AM  
Blogger Howard Martin said...

thanks for raising this issue and steve's tireless efforts up for greater attention!

September 1, 2010 9:08 AM  

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