How Trees are Lost in Seattle – Case Study – 3636 Ashworth Ave N

There are many reasons why trees are lost in Seattle despite efforts to protect them.  The following is another example of why our interim tree ordinance needs to be updated. It lacks the protections many other cities have and does not protect existing trees from being cut down needlessly.

And it points out why the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is the wrong city department to have in charge of protecting trees. Seattle needs a city department like the Office of Sustainability and the Environment with a clear mission statement to be an advocate for saving trees and not have conflicting missions like DPD does. DPD’s primary mission is to help developers build projects and has publicly stated that their policy is to protect trees unless they limit the development potential of a lot. But even that statement is false when you look at the following example.

They are giving no protection to a large 25 inch Douglas fir even when there are clearly alternative ways to build the proposed garage on this site  without removing the tree.Check out this picture. The garage is to be build on the right side of the lot between the red markers in the center of the picture. DPD’s response is that it has no ability to save this tree despite clear alternatives.

SONY DSC

There is an equal amount of space to move the garage to the left of the stairs coming down to the sidewalk or just to the right of the stairs.  Either of these two options would clearly allow the garage to be built and still save the tree. Note also that building the garage does not add any additional parking but is actually a net loss as it will remove two on street parking spaces.

Check out  DPD’s response to the next door neighbor Nancy Rottle’s inquiry and request to save the tree in the following e-mails. And check out the actual application file and note that there is no official recording of the below e-mails and DPD’s response although one would think this would be in the public record as a complaint.

Also note that there is no assessment of the impact of the garage or project on Seattle’s urban canopy or Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan’s goal of no net loss of trees. There is no  requirement to try to save trees whenever possible or to replace trees lost as a result of this project.

From: Nancy Rottle <nrottle@u.washington.edu>
 Nancy D. Rottle, RLA, ASLA
Associate Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture

Director, Green Futures Research and Design Lab
ScanlDesign Endowed Chair in Built Environments
Adjunct Associate Professor, Departments of Architecture and Urban Design and Planning 
College of Built Environments 
Box 355734  University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195-5734
voice 206.685.0521
From: Nancy Rottle <nrottle@u.washington.edu>
Subject: Project 6376676
Date: December 12, 2013 11:17:49 AM PST
Hello Andy,
I am a neighbor of this project and I also teach urban design at the UW.  I am dismayed at the some of the guidance that the applicant has gotten for this project as I believe that it is actually counter to the current goals of DPD and the City’s Comprehensive Plan and am hoping that there might be some recourse to the applicant’s current plan.
The project is a lot boundary adjustment to a property that has historically been an 8-dwelling apartment building in a single family zone. The through-lots face Ashworth Avenue and Carr Street, with the Carr Street lot serving as the parking lot for the apartment which fronts onto Ashworth.  The property was recently sold and the applicant plans to build a house on the parking lot site and therefore requested the lot boundary adjustment in order to have a lot large enough to allow construction of the additional house. In order to compensate for the parking loss, DPD required the applicant to provide a minimum number of off-street parking spaces.  To make this work, the applicant is proposing four parking spaces on the existing parking lot, and a single space in a bunker garage constructed on Ashworth Ave.
My concern is with the proposed construction of the parking bunker on Ashworth Avenue.  My concerns are:
            1) The proposed garage location is in an Environmentally Critical Area (I believe) and will necessitate the removal of a large Douglas fir tree which is growing above the proposed garage location. This tree is a keystone in a grove of trees* which provides valuable bird habitat in the neighborhood, and may legally constitute a “grove” under the City’s definition. The tree provides additional benefits of stormwater control (we are in a combined sewer neighborhood), heat island mitigation, air purification and carbon sequestration, as well as contributes to  neighborhood aesthetics.
            2)  With the construction of the single car garage, a parking spot on the street will be lost, so there would be no net gain of parking in the neighborhood. This is an RPZ zone where there there is neighborhood concern about loss of parking spaces. (Ironically, the proposed bunker location will require the removal of the RPZ sign for the curb cut).
            3) The snout garage will undoubtedly degrade the character of the street; neighborhood design guidelines have discouraged use of these garages as they make the street less attractive and less pedestrian-friendly.
            4) The substantial cost of installing the parking garage will undoubtedly be borne by the apartment dwellers, increasing housing costs.  This apartment complex has been an affordably priced alternative in a central neighborhood and it would be a shame to lose this resource. Again, there is irony in that the approval of small lots in traditional single family zones is done in part in the assumption that creating more housing will keep it more affordable — yet this requirement would likely raise the cost of the apartment rental (and certainly the new house that the applicant will build will not be “affordable” — but that is another issue).
While the City, and specifically DPD, are promoting walkable, affordable neighborhoods and stewardship of the public-private urban forest — I could point out policy documents but I’m sure you’re aware of these — the developer’s proposal to construct this garage is in response to DPD’s requirement for a minimum number of parking space, which however does not actually create any additional parking space in the neighborhood, but does have other significant adverse effects that are counter to the City’s goals.
I wonder if there might be other solutions that could be suggested to the developer, who I’m guessing would prefer to avoid the considerable expense and bother to construct this garage.  For example, in lieu of constructing the off-street space, the developer could be required to provide:
            – Payment for residents’ permanent use of the RPZ zone;
            – Purchase of bus passes for apartment residents; and/or
            – Purchase of electric bicycles and provision of bike parking.
These options would address all four of the concerns listed above. (If the cost of constructing the garage is $40k, that could be $5k allocated per unit, which spread over 20 years would be $500 per year.)  You would probably have additional good ideas for how to actually achieve DPD’s and other City agencies’ common and multiple goals.
Another option would be to require or at least suggest the garage be built on the north side of the lot, where it wouldn’t require the removal of the Douglas fir and wouldn’t adversely affect the on-street parking loss (since there is fire hydrant just to the north that currently prevents on-street parking in this location). That solution would address concerns 1 and 2 above.
I would love to discuss this with you but thought it would be most efficient to send this mail first. I did speak with Emily Lofstedt and since she is just following the letter of the code and not in a position to creatively address the bigger picture she recommend that I talk with you.  Is there a good time and phone number that I can reach you?
Thank you for your consideration of my request,
Nancy Rottle, RLA
3632 Ashworth Avenue North
Seattle, WA 98103
* This tree may qualify as Exceptional as it is part of a continuous canopy of trees larger than 12″ dbh.  These trees are not represented on the applicant’s survey.
From: Nancy Rottle [mailto:nrottle@u.washington.edu]
Sent: Tuesday, December 17, 2013 12:59 PM
To: McKim, Andy
Cc: Lofstedt, Emily
Subject: Fwd: Project 6376676
Hello Andy,
I wanted to check back to ensure that you received my message below and to arrange a time to talk with you about this project.  Is there a time that I could talk with you this week?  Please let me know the best time/number to call.  I have spoken with several neighbors who are concerned about the guidance that DPD is giving the applicant.
Thank you for your consideration and service,
Nancy Rottle, RLA, ASLA
On Dec 17, 2013, at 2:55 PM, McKim, Andy wrote:
Hello, Ms. Rottle.
I have received your messages, but needed to look into your questions before getting back to you.
In this case, we determined that the east portion of the property, fronting on Carr Place N, could qualify for development as a separate building site under the lot area exceptions provided in the Land Use Code for Single Family zones (Seattle Municipal Code Section 23.44.010.B), so long as five parking spaces legally provided on that property for the existing building could continue to be provided on the site of that building.  An application for a lot boundary adjustment was submitted, applying our Director’s Rule 13-97 which allows the adjustment of a lot line between two legal, undersized lots, so long as their sizes remain the same.  The applicant has proposed to relocate the parking spaces so that they will be on the same lot as the existing building after the lot boundary adjustment.  As you note, one of the proposed spaces will be a bunker garage accessed off of Ashworth Avenue North.
The zoning approvals that are required for this – approval of a lot boundary adjustment and zoning review of the relocated parking and the new garage – all are “Type I” approvals under our Land Use Code, meaning they involve little discretion.  In the case of Type I reviews, we have no authority to impose conditions to address impacts, or to consider whether the proposed development is consistent either with adopted policies or with good planning principles.  If the proposal meets the standards of the code, we are legally obliged to approve it.  Although the points you raise, for example about costs and visual impacts associated with the garage and the importance of retaining mature trees, may well be valid, we are not able to condition or reject a permit application on these bases if the proposal meets the letter of the code.  Also, even if the applicant wished to voluntarily pursue one of the alternatives you suggest (payment towards an RPZ, bicycles or bus passes) we have no authority to accept one of these in lieu of a code-required parking space.
I will share your message with code development staff as you raise points I think they may want to take into consideration as they prepare future amendments to the Land Use Code.  However, any changes made could not be applied retroactively to this project.
I have checked into a few of the specific questions you have raised.  You are correct that a small portion of the property is mapped as an Environmentally Critical Area due to steep slope, however, one of our geotechnical experts has concluded that the proposed work is far enough away from the ECA that the ECA is not of concern for our review.  I have also checked with our tree expert.  Based on the information available to us, including the site plan submitted and our aerial photos, there does not appear to be a grove within the meaning of our standards (our Director’s Rule 16-2008).  Addition information has been requested from the applicant regarding the individual Douglas fir tree you have asked about.
I know this isn’t the answer you hope for, but I hope it helps to clarify the scope of our review.  You may view the Land Use Code provisions and Director’s Rules mentioned in this message online at http://clerk.ci.seattle.wa.us/~public/code1.htm andhttp://web6.seattle.gov/dpd/dirrulesviewer/default.aspx.
Andy McKim
Land Use Planner – Supervisor
From: Nancy Rottle <nrottle@u.washington.edu>
Subject: Re: Project 6376676
Date: December 23, 2013 1:07:24 PM PST
To: “McKim, Andy” <Andy.McKim@seattle.gov>
Cc: “Lofstedt, Emily” <Emily.Lofstedt@seattle.gov>

Hello Andy,

Thanks for your response. I do have several questions that I would love to discuss with you, but first it would help me to understand the basis of the 5 “code-required parking spaces.”  If the existing code were applied without any discretion, wouldn’t DPD have needed to require 8 parking spaces for the 8-unit apartment?  How was the opinion rendered that 5 spaces were adequate, if not at the discretion of DPD?  Why 5 and not 4, or 7, or 8?
Secondly, the site with the proposed location of the garage is in approximately the center a mapped critical area, and the garage would need to be built upon that steep slope, so I do not understand how the geotech could have reasonably made the decision that the proposed work (of the garage) is “far enough away from the ECA” — this is simply impossible.
Also, there are indeed (8) 12″ diameter trees within a connected canopy of trees, including the Douglas fir in question, and there are significant trees missing on the applicant’s survey even adjacent the property line. What would be required to verify this possibility?  Do I need to go to the expense of hiring a licensed surveyor, or can I map them myself? (I am a licensed landscape architect).
Thank you for your assistance and I do apologize for causing you any trouble — I’m sure you are quite busy.  However, this issue of codes and interpretation of codes that are counter to adopted policies (and with good planning principles) should be of concern to all in DPD and to our elected leaders.  I am grateful that you will  forward this example of Seattle’s codes being essentially out of compliance with City policies to code development staff.
I would appreciate a response from you with regard to my above questions, and I would also still like to talk with you via a phone call if you can be available.
Respectfully,
Nancy D. Rottle, RLA, ASLA

Associate Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture

Director, Green Futures Research and Design Lab
ScanlDesign Endowed Chair in Built Environments
Adjunct Associate Professor, Departments of Architecture and Urban Design and Planning
College of Built Environments
Box 355734  University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195-5734
voice 206.685.0521
From: Nancy Rottle [mailto:nrottle@u.washington.edu
Sent: Monday, January 06, 2014 10:12 AM
To: McKim, Andy
Cc: Sugimura, Diane
Subject: Fwd: Project 6376676
 
Hello Andy,
I know the last two weeks have been holiday, but I haven’t heard back from you and would still like to discuss the City’s requirement that a single car garage be built in an Environmental Critical Area, which will remove parking spaces from the street (which I’ve just had confirmed is two spaces rather than one) and require the removal of a large (25″ DBH) Douglas Fir.  I’ve also gotten an opinion that the removal of the fir and construction of the parking garage will jeopardize my adjacent 24″ fir.  There is also the likelihood that the 25″ fir that would need to be removed would be considered an Exceptional Tree as it is part of a connected group of trees greater than 12″ DBH.
Is there some recourse to this requirement by the City that there be a single car bunker garage constructed, which is counter to City policies regarding walkability, housing affordability, and urban forest stewardship? 
Can we please discuss the possibility of relieving this requirement?  
Thank you for your consideration,
Nancy Rottle, RLA
On Jan 6, 2014, at 12:22 PM, McKim, Andy wrote:
Hello, Ms. Rottle.
 
Sorry for the delay; I have been waiting for additional information about the trees.  A staff member with expertise in that area will visit the site this week.
 
Our maps of steep-slope Environmentally Critical Areas are advisory, and we rely on additional topographic information that is available to us.  Although there is a steep slope mapped in the vicinity of this site, our geotechnical engineer has evaluated the proposal and determined that the work is not in a steep-slope ECA.  From looking at our maps, it appears to me that the steep slope on this property is minor and likely the result of grading for the street, in which case it would likely be exempt from steep-slope ECA standards under Seattle Municipal Code Section 25.09.180.B.2.b.
 
Regarding the number of parking spaces required to be provided on the site of the building:  We determined that the east portion of the property, fronting on Carr Place N, could qualify as a separate legal building site and be separately developed in accordance with a lot area exception provided at SMC 23.44.010.B.1.d.  However, under that section, if a parcel has been used to meet the legal parking requirement for a building on a neighboring parcel, that parking must be replaced on the same parcel as the building it serves in order to free the other lot up for separate development.  The general code requirement for an eight-unit building would be eight spaces.  The parcel fronting on Carr Place is developed with a garage and a surface parking area.  At times it appears that more than five cars have been parked there, but we determined that the area could accommodate only five spaces meeting code standards.  For that reason the legal building site approval was conditioned on the relocation of five parking spaces.
 
Although I understand your point that provision of a new curb cut from Ashworth Avenue effectively eliminates street parking, we cannot prevent the applicant from taking access to parking in that manner, so long as code development standards are met.  There also is no means, under the code, for us to waive a portion of the parking requirement in order to prevent such a curb cut.  The applicants could seek a variance from the parking requirement, but we cannot compel them to do so, and there is no assurance that a variance would be granted if applied for.  In recent years the City has reevaluated some of its parking requirements, and I anticipate that this will continue to be a subject of discussion.  I will pass the points you have made along to our code development staff for their consideration as codes are revised.  However, our review of this individual project must be based on whether it complies with the standards that are now in the code.
 
Andy McKim
Land Use Planner – Supervisor
From: Nancy Rottle [mailto:nrottle@u.washington.edu] 
Sent: Monday, January 06, 2014 12:55 PM
To: McKim, Andy
Cc: Sugimura, Diane; Lofstedt, Emily; nancy rottle
Subject: Re: Project 6376676
 
Hello Andy,
Thanks for your response. I still have a few questions:
 
With regard to the code requirement for the number of parking spaces, as you indicate it is 8 spaces, which the apartment building now provides.  Six (6) of these spaces are in the parking lot and are marked as such (and I have often observed seven cars parked in the lot.)  There are six cars parked there right now, with plenty of room to spare.  As you noted in your Opinion Letter of July 29, only five spaces in the parking lot would be legal based upon the need to back into the non-arterial of Carr Street. However, since there are also two spaces in the garage — which is not served by the same drive as the parking lot — why aren’t these spaces required to also be replaced?  Your letter states that these spaces would “need to be relocated to a legal space on Lot 22 in order for Lot 7 to be freed for separate development.”  If you are following the letter of the code, why aren’t 7 spaces required?
 
On the other hand, many multi-family projects in Seattle these days are being exempted from providing parking.  Can you tell me how this is made possible?
 
Also, can you please tell me when the staff member with tree expertise will be visiting, or put me in touch with that person, so that I can arrange to be there?
 
Thank you,
 
Nancy
From: “McKim, Andy” <Andy.McKim@seattle.gov>
Subject: RE: Project 6376676
Date: January 6, 2014 2:33:01 PM PST
To: Nancy Rottle <nrottle@u.washington.edu>
Cc: “Sugimura, Diane” <Diane.Sugimura@seattle.gov>, “Lofstedt, Emily” <Emily.Lofstedt@seattle.gov>, nancy rottle <olsonrottle@gmail.com>, “Amrhein, Seth” <Seth.Amrhein@seattle.gov>
Hello, Ms. Rottle.
 
We counted the garage spaces when we determined how many legal spaces could fit on the portion of the property that had been used for parking.
 
There have been specific code amendments eliminating parking requirements for residential uses in urban centers or station area overlay districts, and in commercial or multifamily zones in urban villages close to frequent transit (Section 23.54.015 Table B) and for single-family residences in Single Family zones on lots less than 30 feet wide or less than 3,000 square feet in area with no alley access (Section 23.54.015.B.1.5.)  However, none of these circumstances apply to the property you have asked about.
 
Seth Amrhein is the staff member who will be visiting the site to observe the trees.  It is possible that he will be there today.  His number is 206-386-1981.
 
Andy McKim
Land Use Planner – Supervisor

Comments

How Trees are Lost in Seattle – Case Study – 3636 Ashworth Ave N — 2 Comments

  1. We are looking for help in trying to preserve a 100′ deodor cedar with a 40′ base in West Seattle; it is considered an ‘exceptional tree’ by the city definition. It is a beautiful tree, beloved by the neighborhood, where often eagles, herons, etc. are seen roosting. The owner wants to cut it down for trumped up reasons. It is on a lot which has had slides, one being last winter, has springs running through it, a road and steep hill above it, etc. Yet the city has approved its removal with no geotech report, only the opinion of an arborist (the third that the owner contacted). Myself, on one side of the lot where the tree is, and the neighbor on the other side, have been in email communication with people in the city, but haven’t received very reasonable response to why its removal is being allowed, especially without even a geotech report on the lot. Can anyone help us on this, especially anyone who is familiar with dealing with the city.
    Thanks, Jim Riley, a member of the faculty at the UW.

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