Winter 2019
tree2 croppedby Shane Hope, Development Services Director

Trees – what to plant and what to remove – is always a hot topic.Trees provide many benefits to a community. Trees improve air quality, reduce energy consumption, help manage stormwater, reduce erosion, provide habitat for wildlife (and people), promote a connection with our natural environment, and provide aesthetic value (“trees are the view”). Trees within an urban environment also provide many challenges. Trees can be a hazard to people and structures, interfere with infrastructure, require ongoing maintenance, and can be an obstruction of valued views (“trees block the view”). Because of the benefits and challenges provided by our urban trees, there are many strong and varied feelings with regard to tree protection and removal in the City of Edmonds. 

The City of Edmonds Community Development Code has many overlapping regulations that directly and indirectly influence tree protection and/or removal on private property within the city. The most protective code for tree retention is the City’s critical area regulations. Critical areas include the streams and wetlands located throughout the City as well as steep slopes (particularly slopes greater than 40%). For the most part, trees within critical areas and critical area buffers must be retained unless they are determined to be hazard trees by a certified arborist. Even then, hazard trees that are removed must be replaced at a ratio of two to one with native and indigenous species.

While the critical area regulations provide strong protections against tree removal, there is no general code requirement to protect trees on developed single family lots unless a critical area is on or adjacent to the site. These ‘exempt’ lots comprise the majority of properties in Edmonds.

One of the more frequent complaints related to tree removal in the city is when properties are developed or subdivided. While a goal of the City’s code is that “trees should be retained to the maximum extent feasible,” other applicable development regulations help determine what is feasible. We have regulations that prescribe how wide driveways and roads must be, how far the development must be from the edges of a property, utilities (water, sewer, gas, and power) that must be installed underground, and stormwater requirements that require the installation of stormwater facilities. As a result, when one of the larger properties in the City containing a grove of trees is developed to meet the many regulations and needs, sometimes only a few trees are located outside of the development footprint. Trees that were once stable in their grove, are susceptible to wind throw and become hazardous when isolated on their own. Where a tree was once the right tree in the right location (one tree protected in a larger grove), it may no longer be the right tree in the right location (an exposed tree on the perimeter of a lot) following development. Younger trees that will grow may be planted to help offset the changes.

The City of Edmonds, as beautiful as it is, no longer contains the virgin forest of western red cedar, Douglas fir, and western hemlock that existed when George Brackett landed on the shore of Puget Sound in the 1870’s. Pictures of early Edmonds depict a town being established in the clear-cuts that fed the local lumber mills - the economic engine of early Edmonds. Over the last hundred years, trees have been planted and volunteers have grown in various places. The urban forest that exists in the City today does not resemble the forested landscape of George Brackett’s time. Trees are living things; The nature of our urban forest will continue to evolve over the next hundred years.

In order to help guide what this urban forest of the future looks like, the City of Edmonds is currently developing an Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP).  The UFMP emphasizes issues related to trees that the City of Edmonds has direct control over (parks, right-of-way, and streets trees), but also discusses strategies for tree retention and protection on private properties. In 2019 the City will be refining earlier drafts of the UFMP with the goal for the City Council to decide on the UFMP this year. We expect the final UFMP to contain objectives, goals and policies that will help guide later activities, including development code updates. These code updates could provide more ways to encourage greater tree retention when properties are developed. 

Trees are living things that will grow, require maintenance, and sometimes require removal to accommodate development for the future or because of nuisance or safety concerns. A small tree may not immediately provide the same value as a large tree that has recently been removed. Over time, that small tree will grow and contribute to the community for many years to come. While we will not return to the virgin forests of George Brackett’s time, with proper management we can maintain and possibly improve upon the urban forest we leave to future generations.