News

City targets trees and developers

By JACINDA HOWARD, The Mirror

Not wishing to sacrifice trees or affordable housing, the city along with several partners began brainstorming ways the two can co-exist in abundance.

Consistent development is causing the city to take another look at its codes as they pertain to tree preservation and land grading, especially in areas where subdivisions are planned. The task of amending the city’s codes — in a way that will protect greenery but also attract developers — is in the midst.

“We are trying work out something that is acceptable to both our citizens and our developers,” city council member Linda Kochmar said.

The issue of tree preservation and grading garnered attention when land was cleared on Campus Drive in preparation for development. Trees were toppled years ago, but the land still stands empty of housing. Citizens wonder why the city allowed the developer to clear the land before it was ready to begin building homes, Kochmar said. Complaints were made and staff consulted the city’s codes. They discovered a need to amend those codes.

Preserving trees:

The current city codes specify developers are to preserve tress and vegetation to the best of their abilities. If trees do not need to be removed for the construction of the home and its surrounding infrastructure, they will likely remain intact.

Tree removal must be done in two stages. First, developers are allowed to remove trees and vegetation that will interfere with the subdivisions’ infrastructure, such as sidewalks and roads. Once the infrastructure is intact, the developer is then allowed to clear trees lot by lot as they become ready for construction. Land grading is also done in two stages.

Because development is sometimes a lengthy process, the codes are designed to guarantee some tree and vegetation coverage will remain present on the land, even if the developer runs into troubles and takes longer than expected or cannot complete construction on all the lots, Senior Planner Janet Shull said.

“The least site disturbance, the better,” Shull said.

While this technique may have worked in the past, the city council and Planning Commission, a citizen group that provides recommendations regarding land use policies to the city council, have realized the land available to developers today is often steep in slope and small in size. This makes it more costly for the developer to uphold city codes and perform tree removal and grading in stages.

Affordable housing:

Though the city has good intentions behind its tree preservation codes, they increase the cost of building homes, said Norris Homes president John Norris.

A surveyor is hired for approximately $50,000 to determine which trees must be kept and which can be removed, Norris said. Heavy machinery and manpower to remove the vegetation must be scheduled and implemented twice — once before the infrastructure is built and again for each lot as it becomes ready for a home. Additionally, maneuvering the heavy machinery around and over the infrastructure can be dangerous and cost even more if the equipment damages the groundwork, Norris said.

“There is a crisis in affordability and it is directly related to all these rules,” he said.

The mandates do not allow for the most efficient use of the land, Norris said. Completing tree removal and grading in stages, on average, costs an additional $20,000 to $25,000 per lot, he said. The extra costs are passed on to the homebuyers, who generally do not realize why the home costs so much, Norris said.

“They probably just think the developer charged them too much,” he said.

Establishing a compromise:

Federal Way is not the only regional city struggling with how to save its trees while also promoting affordable housing. But it is among those receptive to change.

“I’m really happy with the attention the city council of Federal Way is paying to this,” Norris said.

City staff, the Planning Commission and city council are all brainstorming possible solutions to the problem. Establishing a timeline, such as 90 days, for how long developers have between the time they clear the land and build homes was an idea that surfaced at the Feb. 19 city council meeting.

Enforcing penalties, in the form of fees, to developers that do not build in a timely manner or replace at least 25 percent of the tree coverage they remove, has also been mentioned by council members. The city may look into issuing forest practice permits to developers, Shull said. This is currently done by the Department of Natural Resources.

These are all just ideas and conceivable solutions as of now.

“The focus to date has been on identifying the issues, and we don’t have specific recommendations yet,” Shull said.

Discussions are likely to involve several concerned parties and take a significant amount of time, she said.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Shull said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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Check it out:

The Planning Commission, Land Use and Transportation Committee and city council will continue to discuss this issue. Public hearings will be held and a list of parties interested in the topic is being kept by the city. To stay informed on the issue and be added to the list, contact Janet Shull at janet.shull@cityoffederalway.com. The city is also considering posting updates on the topic on its Web site at www.cityoffederalway.com.

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