The Town of Steilacoom is proposing to add teeth to its tree protection rules following a cutting last year that riled neighbors and created a potential railroad hazard that's still unresolved.
The incident underscores divisions that occasionally crop up in the Pierce County town over whether trees obscure the million-dollar Puget Sound view or whether they’re a vital part of Steilacoom’s scenery and lifestyle.
Carl Anderson and two neighbors whose homes overlook Cormorant Passage hired a church group in June to clear trees and blackberry bushes on their properties to maintain the view.
Mayor Ron Lucas said the workers cut trees on a 5-acre greenbelt and a quarter-acre parcel owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway that exceeded verbal and written authority by the town.
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The workers dumped the debris down a steep slope.
One neighbor, Kevin Callanan, who lives across the greenbelt from Anderson and called police to stop the work, said the cutting has compromised his privacy.
“This was done completely wrong,” Callanan said. “It’s just an irritant, and it’s frustrating.”
Anderson also is frustrated, maintaining that a town survey later showed that the cutting never encroached on the town property and saying he and his neighbors are owed an apology by town officials.
“They alleged something that wasn’t true,” he said.
Lucas contends the survey showed the cutting did take place on town-owned property.
Anderson said the amendments to the ordinance are being pushed by Councilman Marion Smith, who is Callanan’s stepfather, and that Smith has refused requests to recuse himself from the issue.
The town was updating its urban forestry management plan, which applies to town-owned and -leased properties, and Lucas said the incident highlights the need for an enforcement provision.
“We never had an incident, so no one had ever thought about it before,” he said.
The Town Council has scheduled a March 15 public hearing on the revisions to the ordinance, the most significant since its adoption in 2004.
The proposed penalty is $1,000 or three times the value of each tree removed without authorization, whichever is greater. It also provides for additional unspecified penalties or damages.
Another notable change is expansion of the permit review process to include a notice to neighboring properties and an on-site tour.
In addition, proposed developments of at least 1 acre are subject to provisions aimed at retaining and replanting trees. Currently, developments of at least 2.5 acres must follow the regulations.
Most of the debris from the work on the railroad property remains, the mayor said. Lucas said the town had a preliminary agreement with a BNSF representative that it would clear the debris one time; any further work would be the offending party’s responsibility. The discussions have not advanced, he said.
Lucas said the debris represents a potential fire and safety hazard because pooling water could compromise the railbed and limbs could damage the window of a passing train. Callanan said there’s evidence the slope is eroding.
In a separate incident, the town fined a property owner last month for removal of trees from a wetlands buffer without approval, in violation of its critical areas regulations. The work occurred in December, upsetting some residents.
The fine is $1,000, and the property owner must replant trees under a town-approved plan prepared at his expense.
Resident Nancy Henderson notified the town of the wetlands cutting and has carefully reviewed the ordinance revisions. She said the proposed changes are a “vast improvement” over the existing language due to the penalty and notification provisions.
“Steilacoom is both blessed and cursed with a view, because it does bring forth these issues,” Henderson said.
Christian Hill: 253-274-7390 firstname.lastname@example.org