By Scott Morris, FHNA president
As many of you know, the Kirkland City Council is now reviewing proposed changes to the City’s tree code (Kirkland Zoning Code Chapter 95). The Council expects to adopt code amendments sometime in the Spring.
It’s not too late to get involved
Tree codes are complicated, but this overview is designed to help you understand the issues with minimal brain damage. This “field guide”:
- provides a quick status report on the Council’s review of the code revisions
- summarizes the recommendations that the Finn Hill Neighborhood Alliance has submitted about the tree code, and
- outlines the key issues that the Council is wrestling with.
At the end of the overview, you’ll find a link to videos of the Council’s discussions so far, a calendar of upcoming Council discussions, and links to Council members and key City staff so that you can submit written comments.
Fair warning! This overview takes about 12 minutes to read. That’s a lifetime in today’s distracted world. But if you grab a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine) and plow ahead, you’ll finish up with a good understanding of what’s going on.
The Kirkland Planning Commission recommended code revisions to the City Council at the end of last year. Council members began discussing the most significant issues with City staff in study sessions and Council meetings in January. These discussions are scheduled to continue in Council meetings over the next two months.
Although the oral testimony record is closed, there’s still time to submit comments to the Council by email. FHNA encourages Finn Hill residents to present their views to the Council without delay. (See below for City Council email addresses.)
Note: After the Council completes work on the citywide tree ordinance, it will consider amendments to the Holmes Point Overlay tree ordinance, which applies solely to the Finn Hill neighborhood west of Juanita Drive. Changes to the citywide code don’t directly affect the HPO.
Kirkland’s tree canopy goal
The City’s comprehensive plan includes a tree canopy goal of 40% coverage. You can learn more about the rationale for this goal in the City’s urban forest management report. The 40% goal has been in place for many years and is consistent with the tree canopy objectives of many other cities. When the City annexed Finn Hill, Juanita and Kingsgate in 2011, Kirkland’s canopy rose to 40.7%. By 2019, however, the canopy had dropped to roughly 38% — a decline in the size of our tree canopy of nearly 7%.
We need a tree code and an urban forest management policy that will help Kirkland get back to 40% tree canopy coverage. FHNA submitted a letter to the Council in January outlining our views on the City’s tree code. In our letter, we said that the code amendments being proposed will be a step backwards in regard to protecting Kirkland’s tree canopy, unless the Council adopts three revisions:
- Expand the number of Landmark trees (defined below) eligible for the City’s highest retention standards
- Bolster tree planting requirements following development activity
- Impose reasonable limits on homeowners’ ability to cut down Landmark trees
FHNA’s letter also calls for stricter tree code enforcement and a commitment by the City to create a tree planting program that will ensure Kirkland recovers its 40% canopy.
The key issues
A good way to understand the issues in the Kirkland tree ordinance is to break them into two groups – one dealing with tree removals and new tree plantings when property is being developed and the other dealing with tree removals and mitigation by homeowners who aren’t redeveloping their property.
The following summary starts with the development scenarios. It describes the current code provisions and then highlights proposed changes.
Tree regulations for properties being developed
Tree removal and retention – Any permit application to develop property must include a plan showing which trees will be retained, removed, and planted. Healthy “significant” trees (trees with trunks at least 6” diameter at breast height) must be retained “to the maximum extent possible” if they are located in setbacks (front, back and side yards); healthy significant trees located elsewhere on a parcel must be retained when “feasible”. In order to save high retention value trees, City staff can require minor adjustments to building locations as well as adjustments to the location of drives, paths, and utilities.
New tree planting – If, following development, the property will have fewer than 30 tree credits per acre (8 credits on a ¼ acre lot), the developer must plant new trees to meet the 30 credits/acre requirement.
Tree credits are based on the trunk diameters of trees. For example, a 30” inch tree is worth 11 credits, a 16” tree is worth 4 credits, etc. Newly planted 4’ tall native trees and 2” diameter deciduous trees earn one credit each.
Retention: Today, very few trees that aren’t in setbacks are saved, particularly on smaller lots, primarily due to building size, access requirements, and utility installations. Large trees are most vulnerable because their root structures may extend over a significant portion of a lot.
Tree plans can be changed during what’s called “phased” review, allowing a builder to defer final retention decisions on some trees until site grading begins or individual homesites are designed. Trees may be removed – in accordance with regulations – during construction for many reasons, but neighbors often think they are being cut down illegally.
It’s not just neighbors who are frustrated. Homebuilders are unhappy with the current rules because they don’t know, when they purchase a property, which trees they’ll ultimately be required by the City to retain. This can lead to multiple permit review cycles, adding risk and delay to the construction process, as well as increasing the price to the final cost of the home.
Planting: Some trees that developers plant aren’t particularly valuable to the community – e.g. arborvitae. Also, 30 credits/acre isn’t enough to meet the City’s overall 40% tree canopy cover objective.
Proposed ordinance amendments
Tree Retention –
Landmark trees: The Planning Commission has recommended that mature, very large trees — dubbed Landmark trees — must be retained unless doing so would prevent a builder from constructing a home of a minimum width or depth (e.g. 40’ width at front) or running utilities to a home using best building practices.
The Planning Commission and homebuilders have recommended that Landmark trees be defined as trees in good to excellent condition with trunk diameters of 30” or more (about 11% of Kirkland’s trees). FHNA wants the definition of a Landmark tree to be expanded to cover trees with trunks of 26” diameter or greater. We estimate that this definition would extend the highest degree of tree protection to about 18% of Kirkland’s trees.. So far, Council members seem to support setting the definition at 26” – but some Council members are concerned about how this definition will affect the ability of homeowners to remove large trees on their property (see below).
Note: Establishing higher retention standards for Landmark trees may increase the number of these exceptional trees that are retained during property development, but many will still be lost, particularly on smaller lots that can’t accommodate both the root systems of large trees and a new house, with its patio and driveway.
Groves: The current code provides extra protection for groves of trees, which are defined as three or more significant trees with overlapping crowns. The Planning Commission’s proposed amendments would narrow this definition to require that each tree but in good to excellent condition and have a trunk diameter of 12” or more. The Council appears willing to accept the revised definition.
Tier 2 trees: These are significant trees that are smaller than Landmark trees and aren’t in groves. The Planning Commission proposed that healthy Tier 2 trees should be retained if they are located in setbacks and doing so won’t interfere with certain guidelines for home construction. These guidelines aren’t as strict as those that apply to the retention of Landmark trees and groves. (E.g. a building’s width can’t be reduced below 50’ in order to save a Tier 2 tree, but the City can reduce it to 40’ in order to save a Landmark tree.) The Council hasn’t discussed these recommendations yet.
Integrated Design Plans (IDPs): City staff have also recommended that homebuilders submit IDPs, which will require that final tree retention plans be made available for public comment when development permit applications are filed. Revisions to these tree plans during the construction process would be subject to public comment and even appeals to hearing examiners. FHNA lobbied successfully for an IDP requirement in the Holmes Point Overlay area a couple of years ago, and we support requiring IDPs citywide. The Council seems to endorse this idea as well.
New Tree planting – The Commission accepted a staff recommendation that new tree planting requirements continue to be pegged at achieving 30 credits/acre at the end of the development project. FHNA believes that the standard must be lifted to 50 credits/acre, which is more likely to restore tree canopy coverage to 40% in the long run. Builders don’t disagree with a 50 credits/acre standard. FHNA recommends that a meaningful portion of new plantings should consist of native species, notably conifers, to preserve local character. City staff, FHNA and builders all agree that certain species – such as arbor vitae — should not qualify for planting credits. The Council hasn’t discussed this issue yet
Tree removal by homeowners (not as part of property development)
A homeowner may remove two healthy significant trees per year without a permit, up to the last two healthy significant trees on the property. Additionally, trees can be removed if shown to be hazardous. Trees in the public right-of-way may be removed only with a permit. Taking off more than 25% of a tree’s crown is treated as a removal.
Several homeowners want a higher tree removal allowance for larger properties, on the theory that they have more trees than smaller parcels. Some owners have also sought permission to remove more than the prescribed annual quota as part of a landscaping plan that contemplates replanting.
Proposed ordinance amendments
The proposed tree code revision allows homeowners to cut down Tier 2 trees each year without a permit as follows:
- Lots up to 10,000 square feet: 2 trees
- Lots 10,000 – 20,000 square feet: 3 trees
- Lots 20,000 square feet or more: 4 trees
The rules for homeowner removal of Landmark trees are more complicated. The Planning Commission has suggested that homeowners be allowed to remove just one Landmark tree every 2 years, with a requirement for some degree of new tree planting; also the property couldn’t be developed for new construction for 2 years after a Landmark tree is removed. The idea here is that efforts to require developers to protect Landmark trees will be undermined if the developers can convince homeowners to chop down those trees before selling their properties for new construction.
A majority of the Council members seem to support the Planning Commission recommendations and would extend the development moratorium to 4 years following a Landmark tree removal. But some members are struggling with these measures, particularly if Landmark trees are defined as having trunk diameters starting at 26”, rather than 30”.
FHNA believes that Landmark tree warrant special treatment. Landmark trees provide exceptional environmental benefits and define community character. For these reasons, some cities simply ban removals of such trees. FHNA previously proposed that Landmark trees be removed only with a permit. However, to balance homeowner’s interests with community goals, FHNA is now suggesting that homeowners be allowed to remove up to 2 Landmark trees every 4 years, with requirements for new tree planting to mitigate the loss of the Landmark trees.
The following issues don’t fall neatly into proposed tree ordinance amendments but are items that FHNA would like the City address as part on an effective urban tree canopy program:
Right-of-way and public trees
The City should make a greater effort to retain right-of-way trees. It appears that City standards for curbs and sidewalks are often applied without regard to tree retention. FHNA and the builders agree the City should also invest more robustly in replanting on City-owned property like parks, promoting community education and outreach programs, and enhancing staff resources collect data and expand tree programs.
Inspections — Better enforcement of the Kirkland tree code will also improve tree retention. The City recently allocated funds for an additional inspector, but FHNA believes more properly trained staff are required to ensure that rules are observed. In particular, FHNA recommends that developers be required to schedule an inspection before property clearing and grading begins.
Protective fencing – The tree code currently requires fencing around protected trees so that the soil over their root systems won’t be compacted by heavy equipment. New code language attempts to specify that fences should be immoveable. Builders assert, however, that fences must be moved during construction for a variety of legitimate reasons. FHNA suggests fence movement be permitted only the extent justified in the developer’s tree, which should specify mitigation measures (e.g., load dispersion) to minimize tree damage.
Penalties for tree ordinance violations aren’t set out in the ordinance itself; instead they’re listed in the City’s Municipal Code. The staff favors strengthening penalties for tree infractions and FHNA supports doing so as soon as possible.
The IDP process can be a useful tool for neighbors to comment on a tree retention if they can easily access the plan and associated materials. The City should put these documents on its website so that residents don’t have to go the City Hall to view them.
Several development projects in Kirkland have stalled after trees have been cleared, leaving bare sites that are subject to slides. FHNA believes that subdivisions or projects on steep slopes should not be permitted unless a replanting bond is posted – so that, if work is suspended for a significant period, the City can install erosion barriers and landscaping.
Want to learn more?
The City Council has discussed the tree ordinance at its meetings of January 21, February 4, and February 18. You can find the staff briefing memos for those meetings and watch videos the Council’s discussions here. Click on the “agenda” link to find staff memos. Click on the “video” link to open the viewer. (The viewer page has an agenda as well. Click on the agenda next to the viewer to bring up the tree code discussion in the video viewer.)
The Council plans to work through more tree code ordinance issues at its meetings on March 17, April 7, and April 21 (subject to change). We encourage you to send comments to the Council as soon as possible. You can endorse FHNA’s comments, or critique them, or add additional perspectives. It’s your right to express your views and we hope you exercise that right.
You can direct your email to the general Council email account and to each Council member individually by clicking here. Please also copy relevant City staff members: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com.
We’d love to hear your thoughts, too. Send us a copy of your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.