Although the task of developing Bainbridge’s Tree Ordinance—also known by the user-friendly appellation comprehensive vegetation management and tree retention regulations—was assigned a high priority in the City’s 2013 work plan, staff couldn’t get to it until now. City Manager Doug Schulze says that’s because of changes in staffing and competing high priorities, including the SMP update, the 2013 Comprehensive Plan Amendments, and the HDDP Program revisions. One and a half months from the end of 2013, City staff are finally looking up at our Island’s trees.
It’s not that the City hasn’t had a tree ordinance until now. But a legal challenge in King County put Bainbridge tree retention regulations on pause. In a 2006 court case, Citizens Alliance v. King County, the Snohomish County Superior Court upheld King County’s land clearing standards, which were enacted after the Washington State Growth Management Act and were designed to protect critical areas, against a challenge by private property owners. However, in a 2008 appeal, Citizens Alliance for Property Rights v. Sims, the State Appellate Court reversed that decision and determined that King County clearing and grading regulations constituted an unlawful tax on the development of land. After an additional appeal, the State Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Appellate Court. So when COBI updated City Codes, the city omitted tree retention requirements in response to the ruling.
In November of 2012, COBI passed an interim ordinance to fill that gap in tree retention requirements. Now the City is finally tackling the development of a new ordinance in partnership with Clarion Associates, the national land-use and real estate consulting firm that assisted the City in the Code Update project.
The previous, scrapped code, Chapter 18.15.010 of the Bainbridge Island Municipal Code, required that new development retain 15 percent of the significant trees (not including perimeter buffers) or 30 percent of the existing tree canopy (including perimeter buffers). The current, interim ordinance stipulates that each development approved in specific zoning districts leave at least a specified minimum amount of tree coverage, measured in “tree units,” reflecting the degree of tree coverage prior to development or redevelopment. Tree units are described in the ordinance as a metric assigned to existing trees that reflect the diameter of the trunk at breast height or the mature height of the tree.
The COBI-Clarion team will have to determine how to measure and protect tree coverage going forward in a way that will satisfy what Schulze calls the “community’s commitment to tree protection measures.” It will also have to establish a way to prove that any imposed restrictions on tree removal constitute ”a reasonably necessary condition,” as the State Court of Appeals argued in its decision.
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Photo by Brew Books.