UPDATE: There have been developments in this case since this story was published in March. Details at the end of this article.
Cold-blooded revenge is seldom the proper motivation for setting urban policy. But it may be time for Seattle leaders to make an exception.
A group of West Seattle homeowners are responsible for a massive clearcutting operation in the West Duwamish Greenbelt, according to a statement released yesterday from their lawyer, who made a previously undisclosed report to the city last month. This gives homes at the top of the hill a better vantage of Seattle's skyline. It also makes the steep hill vulnerable to landslides, and is very illegal.
“We were completely shocked and very upset to learn about this,” says Christina Hirsch of Seattle Parks and Recreation, describing a crime that left as many as 153 trees dead, most of them generations old. “The closest major tree cutting our urban forestry manager (Jon Jainga) can think of is the cutting of three trees in 2014.”
After the story broke in the Seattle Times on March 25, a lawyer representing one of the homeowners — yes, it was a neighborhood conspiracy — released a letter to the media Tuesday. Loosely summarized, it says, “Whoops, sorry about taking a chainsaw to all those environmentally critical trees. We’re committed to making this right ourselves, probably in a way that still improves our views and property value. We've got this.”
It’s worth checking out the letter in its entirety, if only to understand what it’s like when people commit a major crime, but don’t seem awfully concerned about the implications. The best part:
"...a client … along with other neighbors, hired a landscaping business to top and prune some trees to improve the view from their respective residences. After limited discussions with the contractors, my client returned from an out-of-town trip to find the scene shown in the news reports: To our clients’ surprise and dismay, several trees were cut at or near the base, as opposed to just limited pruning work."
Reading this, one may imagine a scene out of a gangster movie: “Those trees, they’re bothering me. Take care of them. I’m leaving town, don't want to know anything. Just be done by the time I’m back.”
Manipulate the map to see where the clearcutting took place.
But joking aside, people across Seattle are watching the city’s response on this case. While the facts are still coming, the homeowners’ behavior seems like a drastic example of the adage, “ask forgiveness, not permission.” City Attorney Pete Holmes is considering criminal charges, and his office has promised to act to “make sure the city is made whole as well as try to deter future conduct.” But the homeowners involved may believe the benefits will simply outweigh the costs.
That threatens to set a dangerous precedent, especially in a city undergoing rapid redevelopment. Through a lawyer, the city was informed about the homeowners' clearcutting on February 5. It only came out in the Seattle Times article last week. No Seattle Police Department case number was on record as of Monday, according to a report in West Seattle Blog, indicating officials may have preferred to handle this quietly.
But now that it’s public, Seattle can't get punked like this. The city should consider getting vindictive, and letting this serve as a cautionary tale to others.
In the face of tree-related disrespect to social mores, many cities have explored ideas for exacting revenge. Below are a few examples from Australia – experts in avenging "tree vandalism" – and a few from us.
Mess up their view with shipping crates
When people pulled this sort of stunt to improve their views in Port Stephens, Australia, the city actually took a crane and stacked shipping crates where the trees once were. The crates were called a “monument to stupidity” and “idiotic,” but city officials stuck by it. A city in New Zealand considered doing the same thing.
Mess up their view with a sign
In lieu of shipping crates, other cities have erected billboards meant to shame those responsible. "Vegetation has been destroyed by a selfish act of vandalism," reads one. “Condemn Tree Vandalism” reads another. This has even happened in West Seattle, where a banner reading “Tree Poisoned for View” was hung in 2010.
Build affordable housing or a homeless encampment
The city is in a scramble to find locations for affordable housing and encampments. Well, some city-owned property just opened up! Yes, the steep hillside probably wouldn’t work for this purpose, given landslide risks. But if there’s even a chance, it would be poetic justice in view of these homes.
Deliver a shock-and-awe-inspiring fine
Reading the lawyer's letter, more homeowners may come forward to shoulder responsibility for the crime. According to Holmes' office, he's identified two responsible parties and suspects there are more. If a simple fine to fund restoration is dispersed among enough individuals, it likely wouldn't add up to the increased property values from improving their city view. So the city should consider hitting these homeowners with something astronomical.
The unholy wrath of Pete Holmes and city leaders may be the only thing that can dissuade this kind of thing in the future. With a group of homeowners literally attacking city property with chainsaws, Seattle officials should consider some real retribution.
UPDATE: In September, the city filed two lawsuits for $1.6 million in damages against homeowners alleged to have perpetrated the crime. On April 19, the City announced a $440,000 settlement in two of three lawsuits filed for the illegal West Seattle tree-cutting.