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Oleruds 2, Fifty Foot Trees 0

The Clyde Hill Board of Adjustments recently ruled in favor of former Mariner First Baseman, John Olerud and his wife Kelly, in the first action brought under the City of Clyde Hill’s View Obstruction and Tree Removal Ordinance (CHMC Chapter 17.38). In that action, the Oleruds asked the City to enforce the view protection ordinance which required their neighbors, who owned a rare fifty year old and fifty foot high Chinese red pine, as well as a fifty foot fir tree. The trees block what has been described by Olerud as 40% of a 30 degree view of Lake Washington, Seattle and the Olympics from his home. The Clyde Hill Board of Adjusters ruled, in a 3-2 vote, that the two trees "unreasonably block the view" of the Oleruds, and ordered the removal of the tress. The Oleruds were ordered to pay the cost of the tree removal and the cost to replace the trees with smaller trees, which total price tag was not trivial ($62,694). The neighbors were also ordered to trim the replacement trees if they grew to 25 feet.

For those of you unacquainted with this Seattle metropolitan suburban city, it is a very well heeled community nestled on a gently sloping hill between the enclave of Medina and Bellevue, a short walk from the shopping mecca of Bellevue Square. It is almost entirely residential, and many of the homes have beautiful lake views oriented to the western sunsets. Given the wealth of the community, it’s not surprising that its residents can afford lawyers, and may well be used to getting their way. Apparently this law, which has been on the books for decades, had never before required a ruling from the City. Prior property owners were able to resolve their differences privately. Perhaps taking a page out of the Congressional playbook, these neighbors couldn't reach a compromise.

The View Obstruction and Tree Removal Ordinance sanctions an abridgment of private property rights and respect for the natural environment which offends me. The Ordinance itself has an "ex post facto" quality, which was apparent in this case. The 1991 View Protection Ordinance states that it applies to all trees planted after the incorporation of the City in 1953. In this case, the Chinese red pine dated back to 1962. Tough luck pine, even though you were 29 years old when the Ordinance was passed. Shouldn’t there be sort of laches argument applied here? The healthy tree has enjoyed its hillside location for a long time.

What's most galling is that the application of the Ordinance is not limited to trees which first blocked views after the complaining owners acquired their property. The Oleruds purchased their lot in 2006, with full awareness of the existence of the trees within their potential view. They chose to buy that property and then to use the Ordinance to force their neighbors to cut their treasured trees. To the extent the original purchase price reflected a partially obstructed view, the Oleruds have enjoyed a windfall, reflected in the $255,000 increase in the appraised value of their property.

There's also an argument that the Ordinance amounts to a City delegation of its eminent domain power to the public for private purposes. There was no finding that the public will be benefitted in any meaningful way by the tree removal. Is this a valid use of government power? I haven't found another municipality which has adopted a view preservation ordinance as extreme in its application.

I like views, and will pay extra to get them. I also like trees, and recognize their importance to the environment and suburban aesthetics. It's important for cities to fairly balance these competing values when they come in conflict. Unfortunately, in my "view", the City of Clyde Hill corked the Olerud bat used at this neighborhood slugfest.

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