The City has settled one of two civil suits against West Seattle homeowners who the City alleged hired people to cut down a swath of a greenbelt in late 2015 or early 2016 to improve the homeowners’ views.
The unpermitted tree cutting near the 3200 block of 35th Ave. SW occurred in environmentally critical areas on a steep slope below the defendants’ homes. In its two lawsuits, the City alleges that two separate groups of people are responsible for cutting two distinct groups of City trees. Between the two groups, about 150 trees of varying sizes, including many big-leaf maples and Scouler’s willows, were felled and left crisscrossing the area.
According to the settlement, two couples – Stanley J. and Mary E. Harrelson and Marty and Karrie Riemer – will together pay the City $440,000 regarding one of the decimated areas. The City’s suit regarding the other area is ongoing, and unaffected by this settlement.
Today the City amended the complaint in that action, which previously named Kostas A. and Linda C. Kyrimis, to add the following defendants: Nancy Despain, Wendy Sweigart, Leroy Bernard, Joyce Bernard, Charles King, Shirley King and Bruce Gross. The Kyrimises were recently given criminal immunity for their statements in the lawsuit regarding the tree cutting by the City and King County in exchange for their full cooperation in discovery, including sharing the identities of their neighbors who are alleged to have shared the cost of tree-cutters with the Kyrimises.
With the first case resolved, the Parks and Recreation Department will use the settlement proceeds from the Harrelson/Riemer suit to begin remediating the slope.
“We have met our three goals – to recover damages and penalties that make the City whole financially and deter future cutting, to hold people accountable for the destruction, and to make the public aware that laying waste to public lands in whatever form will bring consequences,” City Attorney Pete Holmes said.
“All of Seattle was disappointed to learn that hundreds of trees were illegally cut down in West Seattle—this was a violation of code and Seattle’s values,” said Mayor Murray. “With today’s announcement, we can begin to turn this unfortunate event into an opportunity. The settlement will pay for the replanting of the trees and will provide resources for the City to hire youth from West Seattle to help restore the greenbelt, connecting them to the local environment and green jobs.”
“Today, we see that actions result in consequences,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold (District 1, West Seattle & South Park). “I’m hopeful this settlement—60% higher per tree than the 2003 case in Mount Baker—will deter future rogue clearcutting. In Seattle, those with financial means can’t count on small settlements to pave the way towards increased views and property values. Trees in our greenbelts are precious natural resources that maintain soil stability, thus lessening the risk of landslides, and maintain air quality by absorbing carbon. We must protect them.”
“I was absolutely outraged last year when I learned someone clearcut an entire hill in one of our public green spaces,” said Councilmember Debora Juarez (District 5, North Seattle), Chair of the Council’s Parks Committee. “I commend the City Attorney’s Office for its vigorous pursuit of just compensation. We will not tolerate the razing of City-owned trees for the sake of an improved view. Not only does the quality of our air depend on trees, but the structural stability of our hillsides does as well.”
“This settlement represents our reasonable, best efforts to hold those responsible for the illegal tree cutting accountable. As stewards of one of the largest parks and recreation systems in the country, our goal is to preserve and protect parkland,” Parks and Recreation Superintendent Jesús Aguirre said.
“Trees are not only nice to look at, but they play a crucial role in managing storm water, stabilizing slopes, providing habitat, reducing air pollution, and contributing to neighborhood character,” Aguirre said. “The funds from this settlement will be used to restore the lost trees and damaged land, as well as to support urban forestry restoration at Duwamish Head and programs that engage youth in forest restoration work in West Seattle. Since the beginning, we have been committed to securing the best outcome on behalf of Seattle park users and tax payers. This settlement offer demonstrates our strong commitment to protecting parkland from illegal acts of destruction.”
Parks expects to complete the majority of restoration work on the site in 2017, with work to begin in the next month or two. Holmes said the City appreciates that both sets of homeowners consistently expressed an interest in resolving the issue short of trial, and worked cooperatively with the City towards a fair resolution.
Had the Harrelsons and Riemers not been so cooperative, the City would have sought a greater recovery. On a per tree basis, this recovery is significantly higher than the amount recovered in the City v. Farris matter based on 2003 tree cutting. That case involved 120 trees and settled for $500,000, or $4,166 per tree. This case involved 66 trees, and the settlement amounts to $6,667 per tree.
“We accept responsibility for a portion of the cutting that took place in the area described as ‘Site A’ in the City’s Complaint for damages, as disclosed to the City in early 2016,” the Harrelsons said in a statement.
The Riemers said: “We have taken responsibility for our fraction of the tree cutting from the very beginning and are glad we were able to successfully resolve this with the City.”
As part of the Harrelson-Riemer settlement, the City will assign its rights to pursue the tree cutters, Forrest Bishop and John Russo, to the Riemers and Harrelsons. The tree-cutters hired by the Kyrimises and others remain unknown.
In the two complaints filed last fall, the City sought relief on several grounds, including timber trespass, damage to land, trespass, negligence, environmentally critical areas violations, violations of the parks code and violations of the city’s tree and vegetation management in public places code.
On its damages theories, the City generally alleged that the defendants and/or their agents cut down trees on City property without permission when they should have known better. The extensive tree cutting damaged the trees and the underlying land. On its code violation theories, because the cutting took place on City property and some occurred in City right of way, the cutters or their employers were required to obtain a number of permits before they cut any trees. No permits were issued to authorize the cutting.