West Seattle tree cutters could face fine, jail time

Seattle city officials are investigating after more than 150 trees were cut down on city-owned property.

City Attorney Pete Holmes is characterizing the unlawful clear-cutting of some 150 trees on an acre and a half of city property as "completely illegal." It is considered malicious mischief under the law.

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"But once damages exceed $5,000," said Holmes, "And they have very clearly exceeded that here, there is a potential felony culpability."

According to the city attorney, a neighbor tipped off the city back in January that someone had cut down the city-owned trees. They were on a sloping hillside on the north end of 35th Avenue Southwest in West Seattle.

A month later, Clayton Graham, the lawyer for two homeowners, sent the city a letter, admitting guilt and offering to pay for the damage.

But the city hired a tree reforestation company to investigate. The company concluded that the damage done to the trees alone is likely in excess of $100,000.

"The destruction of the trees saddened me -- these trees belong to all of us," wrote Councilmember Herbold in a statement released Monday. "An attorney representing a client sent a letter to the Department of Parks and Recreation in early February disclosing the damage. … It appears the trees were cut in mid-January. Non-city tree experts believe this is not the first time these trees had been cut.

"I have been assured by the City Attorney that both criminal and civil sanctions are on the table for the responsible parties. The sanctions should be significant enough to deter this kind of activity in the future.

As word has spread, people from all around the Puget Sound region have been coming to see it for themselves.

"I think it's kind of a shame," said Gloria Reed of West Seattle, looking at the expanse of stumps. "I don't like see trees coming down. I'm not sure why it had to."

The city attorney says he is pleased the lawyer for the homeowners came forward -- but added, "It's my understanding he does not represent the tree cutter," Holmes said. "And I want to know the identity of everyone involved.  And I want to urge anyone that has information who's not represented by Mr. Graham or some other lawyer to come forward."

Just before 5 p.m., the homeowners' lawyer sent an email.

He said they know they made a "mistake."  But they insist they hired a tree trimmer to "trim" the trees, not take them down. They say they want to negotiate with the city to make this right.

<strong>On Monday evening, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP -- Clayton P. Graham -- sent KIRO 7 the following email. </strong>

"I am sharing this statement on behalf of a client who, along with other neighbors, hired a landscaping business to top and prune some trees to improve the view from their respective residences.  After limited discussions with the contractors, my client returned from an out-of-town trip to find the scene shown in the news reports:  To our clients’ surprise and dismay, several trees were cut at or near the base, as opposed to just limited pruning work.

I was retained soon thereafter, with instructions to disclose this work to the City, offer to restore any damage caused by the work, and coordinate full restoration of the site with the City.  We hired an experienced urban forester (who used to work with the City on this exact type of site restoration) to advise on an appropriate scope of work to restore the site.  We reported the cutting work to the City in a letter dated February 5, 2016.  We shared our urban forester’s conceptual restoration proposal with the City Attorney’s office on March 9, 2016, and offered to provide a detailed restoration plan (complete with tree size, species, placement and ongoing care obligations) from our client’s urban forester when the City was ready to review it.

We understand the City is still evaluating its options, as well as what work will be necessary to restore the damage to this site.  We believe the work affected far fewer than the 150 trees and the “one acre” of City-owned land that has been cited in the news reports.  I believe this is because the City’s current damage assessment for this hillside includes another area of cutting (immediately to the south on the other side of some blackberry bushes) that was not done by our client’s contractors.  In any event, our client remains ready, willing, and able to work with the City to restore the area affected by their contractors’ work.

In sum, these neighbors made a mistake by authorizing this work.  They have the utmost respect for City Parks and its property, and commit to make every effort to make this right.  After discussing this matter in detail with the urban forester they retained, my clients are optimistic that the site can be fully restored.

Clayton P. Graham | Davis Wright Tremaine LLP"

Officials are investigating -- after more than 150 trees were cut down on city-owned property in #WestSeattle. [Read more: kiro.tv/WestSeaTrees]

Posted by KIRO 7 News on Sunday, March 27, 2016