The shared value of trees: Kirkland city official defends tree code as developers move to appeal

Director of Planning and Building, Adam Weinstein, believes new ordinance will not hinder growth.

What is the value of a tree – to a homeowner, a neighborhood, a community?

To the City of Kirkland’s Director of Planning and Building, Adam Weinstein, trees in the city are worth more than just the sum of their parts, and that is why he says Kirkland’s Tree Code is so important.

Weinstein said Kirkland’s Tree Code was designed to help balance development goals in a growing city with the city’s environmental and climate goals.

One of those environmental goals pertaining to trees, is for the city to maintain a collective 40 percent tree canopy, meaning 40 percent of the city’s area is shaded by a tree.

Weinstein said that an abundance of trees in Kirkland not only has practical benefits like stormwater runoff mitigation, climate and temperature control, and wetland protection among others, trees also provide psychological benefits and aesthetics that is a part of what make Kirkland “livable.”

Kirkland’s tree code includes provisions to protect landmark trees over 26-inches in trunk diameter, and works to protect trees in general by imposing restrictions on development that may impact certain trees.

“Generally speaking, the community takes good care of trees,” Weinstein said. He pointed towards what he estimated was only a small percentage of real estate developers that may not have the same respect for or desire to comply with the city’s tree code in the past.

He pointed to the city’s recent growth and the demand for housing which have made the region a lucrative market for developers who Weinstein said want to quickly build “cookie cutter” housing without having to jump through hoops to protect trees on their property.

In the past, he said developers had deforested property before applying for building permits, that way they could develop land that “had no trees” to be protected by tree code.

Weinstein attributed these hasty and careless developments in recent years as being part of the reason that the city currently sits around 38 percent tree canopy coverage – below their goal of 40 percent.

On March 15, the city council adopted new amendments to the city’s tree code. On May 18, the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties joined eight builder-developers and property owners in filing an appeal before the Growth Management Hearings Board regarding Kirkland’s recently adopted tree protection ordinance.

The appellants alleged that Kirkland’s adopted tree code was inconsistent with the state’s Growth Management Act, that it was not informed by the best available science and that ultimately it would hinder much-needed housing development projects in the community.

Weinstein maintained that the city strongly disagrees with the claims made by these developers.

“[The new tree code] is not fundamentally different,” Weinstein said. “It prescribes specific things that [developers] have to take care of, it provides more certainty for developers.”

While the old code included provisions to preserve trees when it was “feasible” to do so, Weinstein said the new amendments provide clearer and more certain expectations for protecting trees during development. He said now developers will be asked to shift the footprint of their project away from trees on the property and that utility installations do the same.

Weinstein said that he does not believe these new ordinances will significantly affect developments in the community nor will they impact the bottom-line of developers. Furthermore, he refuted that the new policies were inconsistent with the Growth Management Act and rather that they were directly in-line with the GMA and its intent to balance development while mitigating environmental impact in communities.

When asked why landowners would be restricted against certain actions that would impact trees on their own property, Weinstein said that trees offer a shared value for the community and that is why it is in the city’s interest to protect the tree canopy.