Lifestyle

Dispute continues over “Eagle Tree” near East Mercer Way

The tree on East Mercer Way has been designated as a ‘Wildlife Tree’ due to bald eagles which have built a nest at the top of the tree. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
The tree on East Mercer Way has been designated as a ‘Wildlife Tree’ due to bald eagles which have built a nest at the top of the tree.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

Councilman steps in to save nest

City Councilmember Mike Grady is, without a doubt, an environmentally conscious man. This is why, when it recently came to his attention that one of the Island’s four "eagle trees" was in danger of being destroyed by real estate development, he stepped right in to asses the matter.

What he discovered — a building permit based on dubious, if not biased, scientific research — impelled Grady to bring the issue before professional arborists, the city of Mercer Island, and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

For several years now, neighbors in the 4900 block of East Mercer Way have heatedly disputed plans to develop a lush, .5-acre lot which is home to an Island treasure: a bald eagle.

Not only that, the majestic bird recently spawned young eaglets, all which nest in a Douglas fir that is nearly 300 years old and protected by the WDFW as an official “Wildlife Tree.” A creek runs through the steep ravine, serving as a vital waterway for storm drainage. Several other ancient coniferous trees also grow on the property.

If the land is developed, as planned, for a 3,600-square-foot home, the natural ecology of the ravine will be drastically altered. The Douglas fir, at least two arborists agree, faces possible destruction, as excavation will cut through its sinuous roots, killing the tree and, potentially, the eagles that nest in it.

“The city arborist, Kathy Parker — well, her testimony is that if you build to the [proposed development] schematics, you have a 50 percent chance of killing the tree. Those are not odds you want to take on a 300-year-old fir with baby eagles,” Grady said, referring to a development permit approved by the Planning Commission in February 2008.

The permit, which allows landowner George Janiewicz to sell his .5-acre plot to developers, stipulated that excavation could proceed given eight conditions, which include: the Douglas fir is not removed from the site; an eagle tree protection zone is established within 20 feet of the Douglas fir’s base to “protect the critical root zone” of the tree; and this zone will remain in “native vegetation” with no landscaping or irrigation.

The stipulations were based on scientific assessments made by a Quadrant Homes consultant who was hired after Bellevue resident Jeffrey Skall expressed interest in buying the property and building a 3,600-square-foot house for his family. The consultant examined the East Mercer plot in 2007 and determined that the land could be developed safely without infringing upon the Douglas fir and its eagles.

Yet Grady, who has worked in the environmental sector for more than 20 years, argues that the consultant’s calculations are based on inaccurate scientific information and, therefore, hold little ground. Moreover, he said, the Quadrant Homes representative was hired with an underlying agenda.

“What I found most disturbing is that the WDFW and our [Planning Commission] have referred to an expert from Quadrant Homes, who is good at getting permits that are difficult to get. The WDFW was pressured to issue a permit not based on the best available science,” Grady said.

The Councilmember pointed out that neighbors have hired several professional arborists to examine the East Mercer property, including a University of Washington professor in forestry and a consultant from Tree Solutions. Both experts’ research contradicts that of the Quadrant Homes consultant, Grady said.

“A UW professor in forestry said the limit base of the tree buffer should be 70 feet, not 20. This is a 300-year-old Douglas fir that’s 300 feet high. The root structure of this tree radiates in every direction at least 100 feet and all the way to the stream course,” he said.

Neighbors of the East Mercer property have been arguing these points since 2007, when an organized group appealed the Planning Commission’s approval for the development permit. The neighbors lost the appeal, largely due to testimony that Skall’s plan for the land would not harm the tree and its feathered inhabitants.

“As neighbors, we were very involved for a while,” said Debbie Hanson, who watches the bald eagle soar above its nest from her kitchen window. “When the city granted the [20-foot] wetland buffer, we opposed this. We hired an attorney and took it to the Planning Commission. It would have been $30,000 to run it through the court system, so that’s when we stopped.”

Hanson said that she and her fellow neighbors are not only worried about the safety of the eagle and its young, but about their own safety.

According to Scott Baker, a consulting arborist from Tree Solutions who examined the ravine in February 2008, if excavation causes the tree to rot away, it could easily topple over in a storm and damage any of the homes around it.

“Old trees like this one are very fragile and depend on the surrounding forest in many ways. The excavations, grade changes and removal of several adjacent forest trees will harm the tree,” Baker wrote in his memorandum after observing the site.

Yet the Planning Commission, according to Hanson, has paid little attention to such claims.

“We approached the Planning Commission prepared with good evidence about concerns that the tree was causing potential risk for neighbors. They didn’t read the information. They deliberated within minutes and went with the city’s decision to reduce the wetland buffer,” Hanson said.

The eagle tree neighbors have since worked with an attorney to file a legal notice warning the city, the WDFW and whoever buys the property that “should developments compromise the tree, we’ll find them legally liable to any damage,” Hanson said.

Grady supports this initiative. Since taking up the cause, the Councilmember has contacted the state and federal fish and wildlife departments, asking that they re-examine the property’s development permit and tighten the regulations therein.

“It’s both an environmental protection and public safety issue,” Grady said, adding that he is not opposed to building on the land as long as developers build wisely.

“I’m in the process of getting the state and U.S. fish and wildlife departments to respond to the city with more restrictive rules on what can be done to the property. They’re required by the Growth Management Act to use the best available science, and they haven’t done this.”

Meanwhile, the East Mercer property is being advertised by John L. Scott. The realtor currently lists the property, which comes with “permit-ready plans,” at a selling price of $475,000.

“Permit-ready plans take full advantage of land while preserving the beauty of the natural watercourse, wetlands and eagles nest. The feasibility studies are complete; all you need to do is post the bond and build!” reads a John L. Scott ad posted in last week’s Reporter.

Company real estate agent Patti DiLaurenti, who is representing Janiewicz, declined to comment on the advertisement, citing privacy matters.

Despite being listed on the market, Grady argues that the permit being advertised is “not at all finalized yet.” And it is his intention to keep things this way until the 300-year-old Douglas fir and its nest of eagles are protected by a buffer zone that adheres to credentialed science.

“I want to be proactive. If any development occurs, this is how it needs to be done. We don’t want that tree to come toppling down in a wind storm and lose the eagles. We don’t want the people living next door to get hurt,” he said.

Councilmember Mike Grady is not related to Mary L. Grady, Editor of the Reporter.

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