County’s New Rules Favor Developers Over Protection of Big Tees

February 14, 2016

trees2142016By Laura Hartman, Mickie Gundersen, Joan Smith and Kristin Kelly

Published: Sunday, February 14, 2016, 12:01 a.m. Photo by Andy Bronson / The Herald in previous article with Roberta Johnson

The anguish of property owner Roberta Johnson, stepping out from her forest paradise into the wet gloom of newly scraped earth, was well-described in Noah Haglund’s front page article on Feb. 1 (“Root Issues of Growth”).

You don’t need to be a tree expert to understand that the giant fir roots on her property next to the new subdivision project are now compromised. Roberta’s story is, in fact, the story of many people throughout our rapidly developing communities.

The Johnson family and others who want to be good stewards of their property most likely believe that Snohomish County will always protect their interests and their property — until they find out that it just isn’t so.
As is, the county’s planning department puts no value on existing trees. Many of our neighborhoods are still blessed with ancient conifer giants that can live for a few hundred more years. Enjoy them while you can because they are fast disappearing!

From 2013 to 2014, Snohomish County rewrote a strong tree ordinance that had worked as a disincentive to cut well-established trees, but which the building community disliked. The old ordinance mandated heavy replacement plantings for every mature tree cut and considered the drip lines and root zones on adjacent properties. In response to heavy pressure from industry lobbyists, county planners became strong proponents of the “new canopy” concept. As residents who care about our communities, we advocated for restoring tree protections on property adjoining subdivision development, to avoid well known risks of wind throw from root and exposure damage, to no avail.

The latest ordinance encourages clear cutting in exchange for a nebulous promise of 30 percent canopy within 20 years. Existing tree canopy was over 38 percent in 2011 within unincorporated southwest urban growth areas per U.S. Forest Service studies. Thus, the new code locks in significant losses of a less-native canopy that we have to wait decades for — a price we have to pay, we are told, for urbanization.

For millennia our noble conifers worked tirelessly to provide the people who lived here with a healthy environment in which to flourish. For every large tree that comes down, we incur more taxes to manage stormwater runoff, prevent erosion and adapt to climate changes. We all lose out on keeping our air cleaner, our homes cooler, and our neighborhoods quieter and appealing to live in. Reliance on the replanting of small trees to grow to a 30 percent tree canopy in 20 years cannot replace the work of large existing conifers.

While the Johnsons fought and won protections through conditions of the subdivision approval, tragically the county planning department failed to enforce them. Once trees are damaged, they pose a legal risk if not removed. Citizens should not be forced into expensive and stressful lawsuits with developers and the county just to achieve fair treatment.

Other cities and counties, near and far, do a better job of taking care of healthy, valuable trees. There are plenty of tools available to improve the current Tree Canopy Ordinance. The Council has approved code that provides an option for “going green” where projects gain density and other bonuses on a flexible tract basis in exchange for tree retention. Snohomish County could build on this practice to make the code stronger, rather than just an “option” for developers. Proper retention of significant groups of trees, and lone trees that are wind sure, along with new plantings are several workable solutions. Strong monitoring regulations must prevent canopy failures. Development strategies of our forested land need to keep pace with our environmental challenges, not create more problems.

With 200,000 more people expected to live in Snohomish County in the next 20 years, there will have to be more development, but we can’t wait that long to see if the Tree Canopy Ordinance works. We know it is possible now to save trees, protect our air and water quality and still meet the future housing needs. This will take a different way of developing our land. It will also take political will.

Do not rubberstamp such a poor process for resolving tree conflicts by staying silent. If you care about the destruction that follows each neon orange development sign going up in our neighborhoods, and if you don’t want to pay to fix it, please take a moment to join with us and send a message to the county executive and the County Council. Ask that they revisit and revise the Tree Canopy Ordinance. We need your voice and we need our trees!

Laura Hartman has lived in Snohomish County for 34 years and operates a small business in south Snohomish County. Mickie Gundersen has lived in Snohomish County for 54 years and is a retired educator with the Everett School District and long-time tree advocate. Joan Smith has lived in Snohomish County for 32 years and is chairwoman of Natural Resources for the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County. Kristin Kelly has lived in Snohomish County for 25 years and is Smart Growth executive director for Pilchuck Audubon Society.

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