Tall tree trouble

Lose views or chop trees? Magnolia neighbors square off.

John Spear remembers a Seattle Parks Department employee's caution that the forest behind his recently purchased home is a city greenbelt and that adjacent residents shouldn't "remove a limb, a tree, a leaf."

Four years later, Spear finds himself leading the fight against a group of uphill neighbors who want to do more than some light pruning. A group of nine homeowners in the 2600 block of Magnolia Boulevard West, including environmentalist and King County Council member Larry Phillips, have proposed a reforestation plan for this city greenbelt area, aimed at restoring their own views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. The culprits needing removal? Tall trees.

Alders and bigleaf maples are found throughout the greenbelt area. The uphill neighbors propose to remove most of these larger trees over a three-year period, replacing them with a variety of evergreen trees and native shrubs. While detailed estimates haven't been prepared, the project could easily cost $200,000, according to uphill neighbor Bob Heller.

Phillips, who just moved back into the home his family has owned since 1964, says he signed onto the project because his mother (who also lives there) was interested in Heller's contention that reforestation could improve the stability of the slope as well as enhance the view from her property. "We were willing to take an initial step and see what might be possible," he says. "There's no commitment to go any further than this."

Below, on West Raye Street and Perkins Lane, neighbors say they wouldn't get any benefits, but would assume a variety of risks from the project. The neighborhood has just endured a costly, complicated reconstruction of the section of West Raye that winds down the hill from Magnolia Boulevard. The road project demonstrates the area's potential for earth movement and water damage, says Spear. West Raye was buckling and slipping down the side of the hill, and reconstructing the street required significant drainage improvements, he says.

Neighborhood residents are especially concerned about removing the trees from the steep, narrow slope between West Raye and Magnolia Boulevard. The uphill neighbors' own consultants documented several scars on the hillside from past landslides.

Plus, while the forested area may impact uphill neighbors' views, residents down below are delighted with the "country lane" feel of their street, says neighbor Dee Salvino. "When you come off Magnolia Boulevard and come down to West Raye, it's like leaving the world behind," she says.

Spear says he stumbled upon the house he would later purchase while taking a Sunday drive and was charmed by the wooded lane that surrounded it. "I certainly can't imagine changing the character of the neighborhood for nine residents," he says.

The uphill neighbors have their own take on the situation. As preserving urban green spaces has gradually replaced maintaining private views as a parks department priority, many homeowners have seen their views slip away. Twenty years ago, the parks department stopped trimming trees to benefit the views of private property owners, but homeowners were generally allowed to do the work at their own expense until a few years ago, says Heller. Now, tree "topping" and other view-related trimming is prohibited on parks properties.

Parks department spokesperson Dewey Potter says the city has nixed the current proposal from the uphill neighbors but may allow them to take their case to the Board of Parks commissioners. One particular sticking point for city regulators was the uphill neighbors' request for an agreement that would, in effect, grant them a permanent view easement over the greenbelt.

Potter says that her department's policy is to allow replanting or tree trimming proposals that significantly benefit public views. "If the private views get helped incidentally it's great, but we don't do it for them," she adds. For example, along many other sections of Magnolia Boulevard, the houses along one side of the street are at about the same elevation as the pedestrian walkway along the bluff—so any trimming that improves the view for pedestrians also helps out homeowners.

In contrast, on this section of Magnolia Boulevard, houses sit on a 20 to 30 foot rise—so bringing the tree level down slightly would benefit view-hungry homeowners, but drivers and pedestrians still wouldn't see the glorious view of Puget Sound. The parks department says the concept of bringing the tree height down far enough to benefit joggers and strollers is simply unrealistic.

Although the current plan probably won't be approved, Potter sees some hope for the future. Further negotiations between uphill and downhill neighbors could also lead to compromises that would make the plan acceptable to the city, she says.

It's not surprising to find folks fighting the battle of trees vs. views on Magnolia. Beautiful bluffs and forests come complete with landslide and drainage problems; the former waterfront vacation homes on Perkins Lane below are now multimillion-dollar properties.

And some changes in city policy, though nettlesome, are undeniably for the better. The downhill neighbors are fond of sharing a 1948 Seattle Times story about the parks department's decision to cut down the trees on this very greenbelt because of the complaints of uphill homeowners. "They want a view; we'll give 'em a view," parks maintenance superintendent Roland Koepf told Times reporter Don Crew. He wasn't kidding; an accompanying photo of the site resembles a Weyerhaeuser clear cut.

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