Maple Leaf appeals decision on letting developer cut down trees
Seattle's Maple Leaf neighborhood is appealing the city's decision to let a developer cut down nearly half of a stand of 66 trees to make...
Seattle Times staff reporter
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Source: city of Seattle
Seattle's Maple Leaf neighborhood is appealing the city's decision to let a developer cut down nearly half of a stand of 66 trees to make room for upscale town houses — the latest flashpoint over the city's growing density.
Neighbors and arborists say the grove of mostly Douglas firs, some nearly 100 feet tall, deserves total protection, while Prescott Development touts plans to build a cutting-edge community on the site that recycles materials, saves half the grove and reduces stormwater runoff.
Now it's up to a hearing examiner to determine whether the city erred in approving the plans without requiring further environmental study.
The examiner has scheduled a July 22 hearing. Prescott wants to start construction in August.
Some point to the grove, known as Waldo Woods, as a prime example of what's wrong with Seattle's tree-preservation rules. Rules now focus on saving large individual trees but offer no specific protection to groves of moderate-size trees.
"This is a very difficult balancing act," says Alan Justad, a spokesman for Seattle's Planning and Development Department. "We hate losing these trees ... but if we can't fight sprawl at the same time, what's the point?"
Bordered by Interstate 5, Lake City Way Northeast and Northgate Mall, Maple Leaf is a tidy community of mostly older single-family houses, a neighborhood that has come to regard Waldo Woods as its own.
Dog walkers, joggers and parents with baby strollers routinely cut through the grove for a quick respite from the noise and bustle of street traffic.
"I have walked around this block for the 18 years I've lived in this country," said Talal Mased, 24, who immigrated from Kuwait. "It's very peaceful, very relaxing. There's lots of birds, squirrels, blue jays, robins."
Just south of Waldo Woods is a century-old farmhouse that Jim and Donna Read bought 36 years ago.
The grove gives them "the illusion of living in the countryside," says Donna Read, who is so upset about the prospect of opening her door to a row of town houses that she and her husband are considering moving outside Seattle.
The suburbs of Redmond and Kirkland are considered by many arborists to have tougher tree-preservation ordinances than Seattle, particularly when it comes to clearing trees for new development.
Since the 1970s, Seattle's tree canopy has shrunk by more than half and now covers less than one-fifth of the city, "too low by national standards," according to the Urban Forest Management Plan, a report assembled by city departments last year.
Mayor Greg Nickels plans to propose new tree-preservation legislation by year's end. He has set a goal of adding about 650,000 new trees to the city over 30 years, largely by encouraging new plantings by homeowners.
A task force Nickels appointed has recommended that the city consider extending protection in a new ordinance to groves of trees, but city officials aren't saying whether they will do that.
Evergreen trees are part of the "green infrastructure" Nickels has argued is vital to slowing global warming, soaking up rainwater during winter storms and reducing polluted runoff into salmon habitat.
But arborists say Nickels' rhetoric doesn't jibe with the zero-lot line, cluster developments his administration has allowed across the city.
"Seattle lags, not leads, the state and nation in tree preservation," says Cass Turnbull, head of PlantAmnesty, an international nonprofit that educates businesses and consumers on best practices in tree pruning. "Given our relatively enlightened record on other environmental issues, I am ashamed and deeply frustrated at our lackluster record."
Alex Fryer, a Nickels spokesman, says it's a mistake to view dense housing as harmful to the environment: "Density is an environmental priority, and that's the reason Seattle has a lower carbon footprint than other cities."
Waldo Woods, which isn't really as big as its name may suggest, covers the eastern third of a 1.6-acre tract next to the Maple Leaf Reservoir.
These were once the grounds of the region's first osteopathic hospital, opened in 1924 by Dr. William Waldo. About six years after Waldo's death in 1962, Camp Fire USA of Central Puget Sound bought the property and used the former hospital as its headquarters.
But the aging building became too expensive for Camp Fire to maintain. And when the neighborhood learned in 2006 that Camp Fire was considering selling the property to a developer, residents were aghast, said David Miller, president of the Maple Leaf Community Council.
When Prescott Development invited the neighborhood to see its initial town-house designs last year, residents protested any disruption to the grove.
Along with removing about 30 trees from the grove, the developer plans to cut down 38 other trees and shrubs elsewhere on the property. It plans to plant 41 saplings — but these will be deciduous trees, not evergreens likes the ones being cut down.
Under Seattle's tree-preservation rule, only four of the existing trees are considered "exceptional" and therefore qualifying for preservation, according to Justad. He said that for Douglas firs, exceptional means having a diameter of at least 36 inches. The neighborhood hired arborist Tina Cohen, who says the entire grove should be viewed as exceptional, even if its individual trees are not.
"The Seattle Department of Planning and Development has interpreted our city's tree ordinance to cover [only] individual trees," Miller says. "It's literally a case that they can't see the forest for the trees."
Rich Ellison, founder of a loose coalition called Save Seattle's Trees, is protesting the city's decision, as well as a similar move by Seattle Public Schools to clear cut some 60 Douglas firs and 22 madrona trees to expand Ingraham High School.
"You can build density without destroying the tree canopy" by choosing the right locations for housing and allowing developers to build higher, Ellison says. "If you remove all your large-diameter trees and replace them with twigs or nothing at all, then you're losing the quality of what makes Seattle a special place."
Green town houses
For its part, Prescott Development says the new town houses, known as Maple Leaf Commons, will be a model for low-rise town houses in Seattle. The 39 units — 15 single-family and 24 duplexes — will range in price from roughly $500,000 to $800,000.
To create a pedestrian-friendly space between the town houses, the development avoids driveways and features an underground garage. The garage was an expensive choice, but it also saves half of the grove, said Jim McLean, president of Prescott Development.
The development also will have drought-tolerant plants and feature two common open spaces. One will look like an amphitheater but double as a "rain garden" that collects and holds water during the rainy season, relieving pressure on the city stormwater system, says Greg Kappers, Prescott's director of acquisitions.
In a couple of decades, when the new trees are mature, the site's total tree canopy will be about one-quarter greater than the existing one, according to Prescott.
"At the end of the day, people will see that this particular project struck the right balance," Kappers says. "With a lot of hard work, I think we got there."
Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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