East Mercer neighbors’ concerns about wetlands, trees resurface

A permit was re-filed for a lot that contains a stream and an “eagle tree.”

Since the snow storms, concerns of neighbors in the East Mercer Highlands regarding plans for a new home on their private road have re-emerged.

The lot in question, at 4825 E. Mercer Way, has been in the news before. It is home to an ancient Douglas Fir known as the “eagle tree.” Members of the East Mercer Highlands Homeowner Association have appealed to the city of Mercer Island several times to halt development plans, but the owner and applicant have continued to apply for permits.

In the most recent revised notice, they requested the reduction of a Category III wetland buffer from 50 feet to 25 feet. The comment period ends on March 21.

Several large trees fell in that wetlands buffer zone last month, according to Gerry Kaelin, who lives next to the lot. The neighbors are concerned about the stability of the hillside and the root structures of surrounding trees if the lot is developed.

In 2017, neighbors were notified that the city had received a permit application for a critical areas determination for the property.

Previous owner George Janiewicz submitted a proposal to reduce the stream and wetland buffers on the site, and was expected to apply for a future building permit. The application noted that “an eagle nest is present on the site and habitat protection will be considered during the review.”

Stream buffer averaging is no longer being requested, according to the revised notice, which was provided because State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review was required. The city expects to issue a SEPA determination of non-significance for the project.

The homeowners’ association sent a letter to the city on Nov. 20, 2017, expressing the concerns of the neighbors: that the property is “a lush, steeply sloped, and undeveloped half acre of land, approximately 50 percent of which is a designated wetland.”

“[It] is home to innumerable species of plant and animal life, including an ancient Douglas Fir tree (diameter 80 inches) that is a documented bald eagle habitat,” according to the letter, written by Tim Fitzgerald on behalf of the association.

The eagle tree would be considered an “exceptional tree” under the city’s recently adopted residential development code revision, and there are two other similar trees in the area — East Mercer Highlands is the only neighborhood with three designated eagle trees within a 300-foot radius of one another. There are 14 nest locations on Mercer Island, according to a city map.

Neighbors are aware that eagles are no longer endangered, but they are still threatened. While they “believe everyone enjoys the right to make reasonable use of their property,” they also feel a “deep obligation to ensure our precious natural resources are preserved and protected,” and are worried about their safety.

Though the owner is proposing to develop the property around the tree, neighbors say that any development will compromise its root structure, creating a hazard.

Neighbors pooled together the resources to buy the land themselves about 10 years ago, when Janiewicz first undertook efforts to develop the site. He declined their offer, which they said was above market value at the time.

To stop the development plans, the neighborhood consulted with two arborists, a Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist and the head of the School of Forestry at the University of Washington, and appealed to the Planning Commission.

The neighbors lost the appeal, largely due to testimony that the plan for the land would not harm the tree and its feathered inhabitants, according to Reporter archives.

Update: According to records from the King County Assessor’s office, the property was sold by Janiewicz to MK&S Investments LLC in September 2018.

An eagle perches in the tree at 4825 E. Mercer Way, where a new single family home plan has concerned neighbors. Photo courtesy of Gerry Kaelin

An eagle perches in the tree at 4825 E. Mercer Way, where a new single family home plan has concerned neighbors. Photo courtesy of Gerry Kaelin