Shoreline residents question City Light tree pruning practices

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A severely pruned tree in Shoreline Children’s Center
with power lines running through its canopy.
Photo by Tim Gruver

By Tim Gruver

Shoreline is a Tree City USA as declared by the National Arbor Day Foundation, but residents fear its trees are quickly losing their shape due to practices by Seattle City Light vegetation management crews.

Maintaining and monitoring over 300,000 trees in the greater Seattle area, Seattle City Light works along 1,770 overhead lines to provide power to Shoreline. Seattle City Light has been recognized for quality tree care for the fourth year in a row by the National Arbor Day Foundation, but Shoreline residents don’t seem to agree when it comes to tree pruning.

15th NE at 146th in Shoreline
Photo by Steven H. Robinson

Many trees in the area now bear huge, V-shaped cuts through their branches or have had major branches cut to one side.

Trees often share the same space as city power lines on both public and private land. Per City Light’s protocol, their intersecting parts are cut back by vegetation management crews, sometimes in extreme directions to avoid electrical conduction.

“Trees are the most common cause of power outages,” said Brent Schmidt, Seattle City Light’s Manager of Support Services. “Our focus is those parts of the tree with the greatest potential to affect the utility infrastructure which usually occurs only on part of any individual tree.”

Such practices are meant to prevent power outages and electrical fires, per Seattle City Light standards. The choice between keeping a tree’s appearance or keeping the lights is clear for Seattle City Light.

“Public safety is priority number one, electrical reliability is priority number two, and the third priority is the health of the tree,” said Scott Thomsen, Seattle City Light’s Public Information Officer.

According to regulation, trees are pruned every five years by City Light vegetation management crews after being inspected by a certified arborist – a much longer span of time than some residents claim occurs now.

Lance Young of the Interurban Trail Preservation Society expressed his concerns that City Light’s tree removal practices on the Interurban Trail stood in contrast to the original intent of the City Light Franchise Agreement, which cites the preservation of all trees.

A tree pruned at a 90 degree angle
Photo by Steven H. Robinson

According to Young, City Light has proposed to only preserve significant trees, or trees with historical or communal significance. He claims City Light has attempted to renegotiate the definition of a significant tree and soliciting neighborhood signatures supporting tree removals within just five days notice as opposed to weeks. 

“A solicitation is not really a request,” Young said.

Residents typically receive two weeks notice of a routine tree pruning unless a tree should pose an emergency. Crews may then prune or remove and replace the tree as deemed necessary, though City Light prefers to remove it if possible. Doing so may involve a number of methods.

“For a deciduous tree, sometimes we do what’s called directional trimming where you’re cutting the branches in such a way where you’re creating room for its branches to grow,” Thomsen said. “It can continue to get bigger, but it’s growing in a way that is growing around the lines.”
A drastically pruned evergreen on 5th NE
Photo by Steven H. Robinson

In response to concerns that frequent, drastic pruning leads to diseased trees, Seattle City Light’s Vegetation Management Supervisor, David Bayard, explained that it is usually difficult to establish a pruning as the cause of a tree’s poor health.

“Even if you pruned a healthy tree very aggressively, it would take at least a couple of years for its health to decline,” Bayard said. “Trees just don’t respond that quickly.”

According to the Seattle municipal code, a tree replacement is required only if the tree should be “hazardous, dead, diseased, injured” or otherwise unlikely to survive.

If a tree is removed upon request of property owners, City Light offers residents vouchers to obtain saplings from participating tree nurseries. According to Bayard, tree removals are best decided on the first time a tree is inspected.

“If the tree dies later and the homeowners say, ‘Hey, can you come out and remove this tree now and replace it?’ then we have to send a second crew out to do a second body of work on that same tree,” Bayard said. “Then it becomes a little more complicated because it becomes a waste of public funds to work on the same tree twice.”

As Bayard continued, the task of maintaining a tree’s wellbeing as well as the public’s is not an easy one.

“You’ve got to balance safety requirements with the tree’s health,” Bayard said. “So we do struggle a lot to do the least impactful thing we can to the tree while satisfying our legal obligations.”


Anonymous,  May 27, 2016 at 6:23 AM  

Another tree related question...Why do Shoreline homeowners have to go through a permitting process to remove a tree but developers are clear cutting entire lots?

Janet Way May 27, 2016 at 9:07 AM  

Outstanding article! Thanks to Lance Young and Tim Cruver for illustrating the impact of these unwise City Light policies. We need to find ways to coexist with trees in Shoreline! A lot of people move to Shoreline specifically because of our lovely tree canopy on our streets and in our parks.

Thanks again to Lance especially for his continued advocacy for our street trees!

Janet Way

jno62 May 27, 2016 at 9:29 AM  

I've never seen anyone examine the trees they chop on along my property line. they just send in the crew, and they cut the trees, whether they need it or not.

Anonymous,  May 27, 2016 at 5:09 PM  

Only if you are taking out more then 3 trees. The city allows up to 3 trees to be removed without a permit.

Anonymous,  May 27, 2016 at 7:52 PM  

Just wait until Sound Transit wipes out 1000+ trees with no plan to replace them. We can't expect them to pay for it when they have $800,000 station opening parties to fund.

Anonymous,  May 27, 2016 at 8:29 PM  

I found this to be hypocritical as well.

Anonymous,  May 27, 2016 at 8:30 PM  

Put the wires underground.

Anonymous,  May 27, 2016 at 10:51 PM  

It's true that there are no requirements for commercial landowner's to retain a single tree if they want to remove them all.

Thanks for bringing this subject up Mr. Young. It's long past due that Shoreline City Council do something to protect our trees from being destroyed by Seattle City Light hacks.

Heather May 28, 2016 at 12:22 AM  

Great article! It is so sad to see what is being done to the beautiful trees in this city. Most people don't realize that the trees are what make Shoreline great until they are gone. I sadly had a tree horribly pruned in front of my house. When I complained about the hack job to the worker doing it, he sadly responded, "I hate my job." SLC is forcing them to cut much more than they even want to be doing.

Danny Myers,  May 28, 2016 at 1:00 AM  

The thing about Shoreline is that it wants to be a forest. Huge trees will grow without even a single watering. Here we are though, using electricity, on our computers, likely complaining when the power goes out, like "again?" Power in our homes comes at a cost, as it's just not feasible to have high voltage power-lines running through a forest. I personally think the arborists at Seattle City Light do a fine job of managing these trees. I would much rather they manage them and keep a tree, even if it looks silly. Doesn't need to be a "McTree" to be a tree. What's the alternative?

Anonymous,  May 29, 2016 at 9:43 PM  

Those pictures were the best laugh I've had all day, thank you!

Cass Turnbull January 8, 2017 at 9:26 AM  

It's true. Utility companies must do directional pruning which is neither nice and nor pretty. It's a tough spot they are in. They get yelled at if they don't prune and the lights go out, they get yelled at if they top, if the prune directionally, or if they take the tee out.

But it is also true that over the last decade SCL has been pruning far more drastically than us necessary. It is the result of open bidding to all sorts of line clearance companies, of trying to save ever more money by extending the pruning cycle, and a corporate culture that no longer cares about trees.

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