Lake Forest Park Update: An exceptional developing tree regulation

Saturday, September 16, 2017

This sequoia, relatively rare here,
is not on the list
Photo by Dan Short
By Donna Hawkey

Lake Forest Park’s City Council has declared seven tree species a permanent right to live by prohibiting their removal.

This forward-thinking tree regulation was first enacted in March of this year and just last month the City Council updated that regulation to change and clarify the definition of exceptional trees.

With the tight housing market around the Puget Sound and many older homes in Lake Forest Park reaching that age for significant improvements, tree removal applications continue to come in at a high rate.

“The City regulations are being updated to get closer to the long established goal of ‘no net loss’ to the City’s tree canopy coverage,” says Councilmember John Resha.

Councilmember Resha has been spearheading this challenging and critical regulatory piece. He explains the major changes as follows:

“In March of this year, we updated the tree regulations to require replacement of tree canopy coverage for those lots that are below the established goals. The new regulations also require property owners that are making significant improvements (adding more than 1,000 sq. ft. of impermeable surface) to bring their properties up to their tree canopy coverage goal. 
"Additionally, this regulation added new protections for the City's most special trees - called exceptional trees, which are defined as the most desirable species slated for preservation in regards to type of tree, diameter and uniqueness - by prohibiting their removal.”

He also describes the recent regulation amendment: “This amendment change was meant to clarify what it means to be an exceptional tree, by adding criteria, focusing in on only seven native tree species (instead of 75 species), and increasing the size of these trees to be consistent with what we saw as the largest and most special of our native trees.” 

Lake Forest Park Municipal Code, Chapter 16.14 “Tree Canopy Preservation And Enhancement,”
Table 1: Exceptional Tree Species and Their Threshold Diameters.

Five Acre Woods
Photo by Dan Short
Other than further defining this most desirable tree species category, Councilmember Resha says, “Nothing else in our tree regulation is being opened and touched in this process.”

Balancing the rights of property owners with a community known for its historic and strong tree preservation values can be a bumpy ride. Lake Forest Park’s City Planning Department has been shouldering the burden. The city consulting arborist and others have been defining how the March Tree regulation translated into meaning on the actual ground.

One example of this challenging issue came to light during public comment at a Council Meeting.

A long-time resident family in Lake Forest Park own a home built in the early 1900’s in which additions done by previous owners were of poor construction and the house has an unstable foundation. With a family of four and aging parents, not enough bedrooms for everyone, and electrical and plumbing problems making the home difficult to live in, the family plan to build a new home on their forested property. 
They plan to build a one-level, ranch-style home so they can age in place. Their plan would require cutting down two trees, which also met the March 2017 definition of exceptional trees - meaning they were prohibited from removal. Making matters worse, this family started their design and development process just as the City put its tree permit moratorium in effect in 2016, so a six-month delay for the moratorium and another eight months trying to figure out what to do about the trees.
Frustration also grew because they learned they could instead build upwards and add a story or two with a slightly different design, but that would require the elimination of a total of ten mature trees (that did not meet the definition of exceptional trees). 
The family very much embraces the tree protection ethic of the City and has a canopy coverage currently on their 1.3-acre property that is well over the regulation coverage goal of 58%. They didn't understand why they couldn't build in the most environmentally friendly way with minimal tree removal, but instead would be easily allowed to build up, but then they would have to remove five times the number of trees!

So with City Council hearing concerns such as this family's example, the update which clarifies the exceptional tree species was passed unanimously. City Council says another review of the tree regulation will happen in 2018 by the City's Tree Board after a city-wide tree survey and updated tree canopy assessment can take place.

Planning and Building Director Stephen Bennett, says “Regulation is a very crude tool and you have to try different things to figure out if you are going too far or not far enough.”

Maple in Pfingst Animal Acres Park
Photo by Dan Short
Councilmember Resha feels that “We need a regulation that’s easy to track … This policy has been difficult to write due to the unique circumstances of our City's long standing tree preservation commitment, non-standard lot layouts and an understanding that a healthy urban forest requires care, flexibility and change.

” Of course, respecting the legal rights of property owners is a responsibility of City Council’s, too.

But with available open space for development being almost all gone, the community has spoken loudly on behalf of trees. 

Long- time resident and advocate, Jean Thomas said, “We don’t want to be like Seattle! Stop the saws and do not weaken the ordinance… 

When you move to the woods, you have to understand that the trees have to be protected!” Jean has devoted hundreds of volunteer hours serving on both the city’s tree board and now disbanded Environmental Quality Commission (EQC).

Since the trees can’t speak for themselves, advocates regularly pack City Hall at any hint that tree regulations will be on the City Council’s agenda. These residents have deep personal passions, as well as passions for the Lake Forest Park Community and its long history of conservation.

“From its inception in 1901 until today, the community has paid great attention to its natural surroundings. It has created a marriage of residential dwellings and wooded terrain quite unlike many other suburban cities,” from History

Maple in Pfingst Animal Acres park
Photo by Dan Short
Councilmember Mark Phillips said that not only is he proud to be part of a community who cares so much about the forest, he also thinks, “We are in a reasonable place to be at this point in terms of these proposed ordinances. It’s pretty clear that there is a need for some additional data for us to take in with whatever the next step is, and for the Tree Board to take the next step of refining these definitions of exceptional trees and probably other pieces of the ordinance.”

If you would like more details about the tree regulation update process, you can view relevant videos from City Council meetings on July 27, August 10, and August 22 - which all can be found on the city’s website. With the council agenda now linked to the video, you can listen just to your specific portion of interest.

Donna Hawkey is a Lake Forest Park resident. She can be reached at


Anonymous,  September 16, 2017 at 6:08 PM  

Does Lake Forest Park allow developers to clear cut entire forests and pack in homes like they do in Shoreline?

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