Would you go to jail for a better view?

Real estate, Crime, Money, News

Many city dwellers wish for a view of trees instead of bus stops and dumpster-filled alleys. However, for some urban homeowners who live in mansions on a hill, trees are obstructions to the view that props up their million-dollar property value. But there are laws against cutting them down without permission from the city, as some overzealous Seattle homeowners are learning, and jumping the gun means lawsuits, along with possible criminal charges.

Laws were broken

The crime was probably committed sometime in January 2016, but it didn’t come to the attention of officials until March, when one of the guilty parties contacted the city’s Parks Department to report it. According to the caller, Stanley Harrelson, the clearing of a city greenspace was a topping and pruning job that got out of hand.

Whatever the tree-cutters were hired to do, what actually happened was a 1.5 acre clear cut. Over 150 trees were cut down and left to rot where they fell. Most of the downed trees were mature big-leaf maples and Scouler’s willows – native species with large, fibrous root systems particularly suited to the job of holding saturated soils in place on steep, landslide-prone hillsides.

In Seattle, as in many cities with tree ordinances, it is illegal to prune or remove trees on public property without a permit, and tree removal permits will not be granted for view improvement. Topping – the removal of all tree parts above a certain height – is a harmful practice and is prohibited on all city-owned and right-of-way trees. Only invasive species and hazardous trees may be removed from environmentally critical areas, such as the one behind Harrelson’s house (the Harrelsons have since hired an arborist to develop a restoration plan for the greenbelt).

Damage was done

Lawsuits involving trees are more common than most people realize, which has spurred tree ordinances in many municipalities. Seattle city officials point out that the trees from the greenbelt were not only useful in preventing landslides onto the arterial road below, but that the tiny woodland also provided air quality benefits for the West Seattle neighborhood, which borders a highly polluted industrial neighborhood.

Ironically, many would argue that the view has not improved. The homeowners new, unobstructed sightlines to the water look across a barren hillside littered with rotting logs. One neighbor, who was not involved in the tree cutting, complains that she chose her home for its view of the trees, not the water.

What’s the fallout?

After a six-month investigation, the city attorney for Seattle filed two lawsuits covering different areas of the greenbelt and seeking $1.6 million in damages. The first lawsuit names the Harrelsons, their neighbors the Riemers, and the people they hired to cut the trees. The second names another neighbor, the Kyrimis family, and both lawsuits include up to 20 John and Jane Does, pending the outcome of the ongoing investigation. The lawsuits allege damage to land, trespass, negligence, environmental violations, parks-code violations, tree-management violations, and timber trespass, a violation which allows for triple damages.

Lisa Herbold, the city councilmember representing West Seattle, made a public statement in support of the city attorney’s actions. “The $1.6 million total in damages and fines sought by the City speaks to the seriousness of the claims. The damages and penalties must be significant enough to deter this kind of activity in the future, so that those with financial means don’t see unauthorized tree cutting as a cost-effective way to increase their views and property values.”

The city has made it clear they intend to pursue the full range of the legal remedies available for civil suits, and is considering criminal charges if enough evidence can be gathered. Because of the dollar amount of the damages, the homeowners could be facing felony charges. It looks like these homeowners will be looking for legal services more than landscaping for the foreseeable future.