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Now the tale is flipped on its head. In other local cities, landowners perennially complain about trees in parks and greenbelts blocking their views; sometimes they take the law and saw into their own hands. (In the most extreme example, a federal judge paid $618,000 in fines and interest after his immigrant gardeners cut down 120-plus trees in neighboring Colman Park to open up his lake view.) They grumble about being required to maintain unwanted trees in environmentally critical areas on their own property. In Seattle, some resent having to preserve jumbo-sized “significant trees” even outside those areas.
In Clyde Hill, however, the saw is in the other hand; its city code undertakes to make citizens cut down their trees for the sake of other citizens’ views, contrary to both tree-hugging and property-rights principles. This raises serious constitutional questions, which will play out if the two neighbors fail to settle and Baker appeals the adjustment board decision.
Clyde Hill is a community that takes the look of its properties and the views from them very seriously. According to one factoid that gets repeated so often it must be too good to be true, its citizens aren’t just the fourth-wealthiest in Washington but the tenth-largest employers, per capita, of landscaping services. They incorporated as a city just hours before adjacent Bellevue did, in order to escape Bellevue’s zoning and, presumably, the threat of creeping urbanization.
Clyde Hill went its own way again nearly four decades later when it drafted an ordinance to protect its valuable views. Its code writers had to look far afield for models. Some local planned communities did include view protection in their covenants — most notably Innis Arden, the former Boeing family game estate (ironically named after the enchanting Forest of Arden of Shakespeare’s As You Like It), which Bill Boeing had logged and, in 1940, subdivided. In 1981 Innis Arden adopted particularly stringent view covenants, which mandate that any trees that might potentially block other lots’ Sound and Olympic views be cut or trimmed below rooftop level.
“For the most part, other than large trees that were grandfathered in or critical areas, the old trees have all been cut down,” laments arborist Hushagan, who happens to live in Innis Arden. This year, after a years-long legal battle with tree defenders (including both residents and the City of Shoreline), the Innis Arden Club cut down some 37 significant trees in a wooded common area to enhance the views of eight upslope homeowners. This month, says another arborist, Tina Cohen, it ordered a client of hers in Innis Arden to cut his Douglas firs back to the biologically absurd height of 15 feet.
Innis Arden's rules are covenants, private contracts, rather than laws, and so can go where public codes constitutionally cannot. Clyde Hill’s code drafters found models for their efforts in the less treecentric state of California, in particular the Bay Area town of Tiburon. But Clyde Hill goes farther than Tiburon, and its own neighbor Medina, which only protect views from neighboring trees planted after residents bought their properties. Clyde Hill's “View Obstruction and Tree Removal” ordinance, adopted in 1991, starts out extolling the cultural, environmental and inspirational values of both trees and views, then comes down for the latter: No resident may “grow or tolerate” any tree that “unreasonably obstructs the view or access to sunlight of a neighbor.” The only exception: if that tree was growing before 1953, when Clyde Hill was incorporated. The Chinese pine sprouted just a few years too late to be grandfathered in.
The law directs residents aggrieved by obstructive trees to first try to work things out with their owners, as neighbors would in the absence of such a rule. Failing that, they may appeal to the city to force the trees’ removal. In the first such case filed, concerning a hedge that had grown into a tree-sized wall of green, the parties “did what the vast majority of folks in Clyde Hill do,” says city manager Mitch Wasserman: They settled before the Clyde Hill Board of Adjustment reached a decision. “I think they did some trimming.” In the next case, the board ruled in the tree’s favor.
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