The tree has stood in its spot for more than 50 years. It is about 40 feet tall, but its spreading, twisting side branches make it look bigger. It looks both ragged, thanks to a recent thinning, and exotic, which it is. It’s a Chinese red pine, Pinus tabuliformi, a species classed as “very rare” on this continent in Arthur Lee Jacobson’s Trees of North America. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen another one,” says John Hushagan, a veteran arborist who recently pruned it.
According to Hushagan and another arborist who examined the Chinese pine, it’s in “great shape.” It does not impinge on public passage or endanger neighbors or passersby. Its owner, a technology entrepreneur and Microsoft manager-turned-Presbyterian minister and professor of business ethics at Seattle Pacific University named Bruce Baker, cherishes the shade and privacy it provides, as well as its rarity and its value, both material and intangible. “It’s a community value,” says Baker. “Trees provide many benefits, and not just to the owner. They give our neighborhood a distinctive natural beauty."
But the pine tree is doomed, if the City of Clyde Hill’s Board of Adjustment has its way. Last month that body decided that the pine and a Colorado spruce behind it are illegal and must be cut down, for one simple reason: They intrude on the otherwise wide-open view of the neighbor across the street, diminishing his enjoyment of the home he recently built and, not incidentally, its value.
The case wouldn’t likely have attracted so much attention if it didn’t have such a piquant human aspect, and if that neighbor weren’t a local sports legend: former Mariners first baseman and three-time Gold Glove winner John “Big Rude” Olerud, a veteran of a sport that likes its trees cut and shaped into swingable tapered sticks. Olerud and his wife moved to the site many years after the tree had grown up there, and stayed in the Bakers’ house for eight months while their own 6,680-square-foot home was being built.
In person, John Olerud and Bruce Baker seem like two of the nicest guys you'd ever hope to meet, and they share something else: their religious faith. At the adjustment board hearing on his petition, Olerud invoked the gospel injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” At the same hearing, according to the Seattle Times, another neighbor told Baker he was “not very Christian” because he wouldn’t cut down his tree. He’d already thinned it, removed a smaller redwood on his property, and offered to remove the spruce in an attempt to mollify Olerud. He's visibly pained at being involved in a so far irreconciliable dispute.
At the hearing, Baker measured out aerial photos Olerud had provided and argued that the trees blocked just 9 percent of his 180-degree view of Lake Washington, Seattle, and the hills and mountains around them. Olerud, who leveled his formerly forested property and replaced its trees with a spacious lawn and tennis court, insisted that they left him only a 30-degree view to the west. He presented an appraiser’s finding that this decreased the value of his property by a whopping $255,000 — a rather large share of the $803,000 value at which King County assesses his 20,000 square feet, not counting improvements.
Unusual though the circumstances are, this is not just a case of (take your pick) a big rude sports star trying to sweep the field, or a tenacious athlete showing the same hustle he did in the majors. This piney tale is the latest flashpoint in a rolling conflict between two conflicting cherished values in the Puget Sound region: living nature and splendid “natural” views. It’s a conflict of classes, cultures and generations as well as values and pecuniary interests. And it’s growing more acute as trees planted decades or, in older neighborhoods, a century ago grow to their full stature, and as houses and property values on desirable view slopes like Clyde Hill’s likewise expand.
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