Mercer Island residents rally to save eagle tree

Neighbors are concerned about the environmental and safety impacts of a planned residential project.

Neighborhood character has been a big topic on Mercer Island lately, and residents on East Mercer Way are rallying to save something they love about their neighborhood: an ancient Douglas Fir known to neighbors as the “eagle tree.”

They were recently notified that the city’s Development Services Group received a permit application for a critical areas determination for the property at 4825 E. Mercer Way, which is home to the eagle tree.

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

Members of the East Mercer Highlands Homeowner Association voiced their concerns about the proposal, sending a letter to the city and meeting with DSG staff on Nov. 20.

The property is “a lush, steeply sloped, and undeveloped half acre of land, approximately 50 percent of which is a designated wetland,” according to the letter, written by Tim Fitzgerald on behalf of the association.

“[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. “For as long as anyone can remember, and continuing through the present, the Eagle Tree has at all times contained an active bald eagle’s nest or been a location frequented by bald eagles.”

Fitzgerald said that the eagle tree would be considered an “exceptional tree” under the city’s recently adopted residential development code revision. And there are two more 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.

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. While they feel a “deep obligation to ensure our precious natural resources are preserved and protected,” they are also worried about their safety. According to their letter, they believe the city should negotiate with the owner to potentially purchase the property.

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.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife later sent a letter threatening fines and jail time for harming the eagle tree, according to the letter.

The neighbors wrote that Janiewicz is now trying to downplay the level of eagle activity, claiming that the last verified activity was in 2005. According to his application, eagles were not observed during site visits in 2006 and 2017. The neighbors say they were not consulted during those visits, so they sent declarations to the city that they have observed eagles continuously, and recently. 

The eagles have been seen in “summer 2017,” “numerous times this year,” “as recently as this month,” “at least six times in the past six months” and “as recently as several weeks ago,” according to the declarations.

The neighbors “believe everyone enjoys the right to make reasonable use of their property” but that no one has a right to harm a protected eagle tree, according to their letter.

Anyone can submit comments to the city about the permit and project on or before the deadline of Dec. 7.

See the Development Services Group (DSG) weekly permit bulletin for more information.

Eagles perch in a tree at Clarke Beach on Mercer Island. File photo

Eagles perch in a tree at Clarke Beach on Mercer Island. File photo