Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Tree Issue; the PI Editorial Board Weighs In

This editorial about the issue of Seattle School District and tree cutting on their property(ies) appeared in today's PI. It was very direct:

"The School Board should map a path for reversing course quickly, perhaps beginning at a closed-door Tuesday meeting. Neighbors have legitimately fought the district's plans to cut dozens of trees for a needed Ingraham High School expansion. A district review recently upheld the tree removal. But with city rules apparently blocking any cutting while a master-use permit was pending, the district sent a letter to neighbors saying it would withdraw its city permit applications for the construction plans, cut the trees and soon resubmit the project. Too clever by half, and even more cynical."

The closed door meeting is an Executive Session of the Board today (members only).

The PI suggests:

"We understand eagerness on the district's part to improve facilities, hold down costs and stay on schedule. If the tree removal is the best plan, however, the district has nothing to fear from a little patience with all the reviews that may be requested by people who support expansion but question the need for the tree removal and a full examination by the city government, which has, we might note, a record of being as generous as local voters in supporting education." (Italics mine.)

The majority of the comments after the editorial were against the district. One said:

"I will certainly remember its (the District's) activities when the next levy rolls around, and I will be reminding everyone I know as well. "

The danger here is that the next levy which is the BTA (which is like the workhorse maintenance levy that gets the big stuff like roofs, for example, done). We are way behind on maintenance and I'm sure many of you know this from your own schools. (Overall maintenance is generally spent as 4% of a district's general budget. Problem is because of budget problems overall for years now that has been reduced to 2% so you can imagine how we have fallen behind.) If people perceive that the district is behaving badly AND the next levy is not a capital levy or operating levy, then there just might be some payback from voters who don't see the BTA as a particularly big deal for the district to lose.

No one is telling the district they can't cut some trees. (But I would be interested in an independent contractor telling us why they HAVE go this route rather than build the addition in another direction.) But do they have to be so heavy-handed? Do they have to alienate the neighbors, the community and, for pete's sake, the Mayor (although people in the Maple Leaf neighborhood would tell you that the Mayor hasn't exactly been supportive of their issues with tree removal)?

Still waiting for someone to rein in the Facilities department. It will be interesting, by the Board meeting next week, to see what will happen.


Charlie Mas said...

Now we have news, Group sues to keep trees from being cut down near Ingraham High School that Save the Trees will bring litigation to prevent the District from chopping down the trees.

How does it come to this?

Here's the part that I found most amusing from the Times story:

"Tucker said extensive public input and comment went into the planning"

Really? Was there any public input or comment before the decision to cut down the trees or did all of the public input and comment come after the decision to cut down the trees? And who heard the input and the comments? Was it the decision-makers? And did the decision-makers seriously consider this input and these comments? Finally, has there been any conversation - any dialog - about the issue between the decision-makers at the District and the community members who oppose the plan?

It may be that the District has done all of these things. I doubt it. This is not their modus operandi. Their usual practice is to make their decisions, make their plans, and then present them to the public as a done deal. They ignore and stonewall opposition until they can claim that they have "gone too far down this road to change course". Then they create a number of window-dressing public meetings and hearings where there is no discussion and claim that they have engaged the community.

Mr. Tucker says that there was extensive public comment. What were those comments? Weren't a number of them "Don't cut down the trees!"?

Melissa Westbrook said...

As I may have mentioned before, the hearing examiner said they had public meetings but they weren't publicized. So sure, the district followed the letter of the law but not the spirit of being fair by even letting people know there were meetings.

Charlie Mas said...

Ah, Seattle. Home of the public hearing which is neither.

Charlie Mas said...

I have been thinking that the Board is split on whether they should step in here.

A few of the Board members were pretty badly spattered with the mud that flew off the Denny/Sealth fiasco. I would be willing to bet that a couple of them are a bit concerned about their public image. They may be interested in throwing this one to the Ingraham neighbors as a make-up call for blowing the Denny/Sealth decision.

Another board member might join them in a no vote, largely on the District's failure to conduct adequate community engagement, but I can't see more than three votes for the opposition - not enough to form a majority.

One Board director, you know, does whatever the staff recommends without qualm or question. This person doesn't care what anyone else wants. Mark this director down as a permanent yes vote for all motions.

Another Director feels responsible for BEX III and is committed to pushing it forward. This Director would not admit any fault in any aspect of the capital bond projects.

One of the Board Directors is an experienced real estate professional, and so, I expect, will consider this decision strictly on its merits. The documents from the SEPA hearing make it clear that the proposal - with the trees and bushes planted to replace the cut trees - actually increases the greenery and the canopy on the property and, because the old trees are nearing the end of their life expectancy, are extending the life of the plants on the property. No, there are not the same trees, but they are other and - in some ways - better trees.

The last Director isn't feeling any Denny/Sealth guilt and is likely to consider this decision on its merits as well.

So then the question becomes, if the votes aren't there to disapprove this project as written, will the Directors concerned about their public image abandon that position and vote with the majority in the name of Board unity? I think they will. One of them doesn't strike me as someone with romantic ideas about making the beau geste. The other doesn't strike me as someone who is willing to stand alone on one side of an issue.

In the end, the Board will vote to approve this mess, the Board will be hit again with all of the blame for it, and the Board will make some noises for a while about authentic community engagement, until they realize that they can't do anything about it and they realize that they don't really want to do anything about it.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Well, what I understood is that even if they plant more trees, the district is planting smaller trees that overall will provide LESS of a canopy. This is from the hearing examiners report.

Only an arborist could give a real and true assessment but, of course, the real issue is the process.

Roy Smith said...

Seattle School District Revs Up Chainsaws, Save the Trees files for TRO

The school district is asking the court that Save the Trees (the group filing the lawsuit and filing for a temporary restraining order) post bond for $10,000 to pay the contractor if the trees aren't cut Friday (apparently this term is in the contract with the contractor, who is paying the school district $33,000 for the trees), and also to post bond for $400,000 to cover inflation costs due to delay of the project. If Save the Trees does not succeed in getting a temporary restraining order today (the hearing is being held now), the school district intends to cut the trees Friday, which will render the Sept. 2nd hearing on the suit moot, as the trees will already be gone.

To say that the school district is fighting dirty is an understatement. I'm not normally a big fan of civil disobedience, but in this case it seems like it would be entirely appropriate to stage a disruptive protest if the school district continues to ride roughshod over the concerns of the neighborhood and the city, and to flagrantly disregard any concern for due process or open decision-making.

h2o girl said...

I can't believe they're just going to cut the trees down on Friday, even in the face of so much opposition. Well, I suppose I can believe it. Did they say why they couldn't build the addition on the side of the school that doesn't have the trees?

Charlie Mas said...

Save the Trees got their injunction and posted a bond, although only for $7,500.

See this story in the Times for details.

Interesting that the Times headline says that the trees are "near" Ingraham High School. Um, no, they are AT Ingraham High School.