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Above the treetops: view of an island

About the image: This recently released view of Bainbridge Island is a composite of 18 separate photographs shot from an airplane at 12,000 feet, images recorded by the Aerial Photo Laboratory of the Washington State Department of Transportation on July 10, 2002. The photos were melded using digital imaging software; with a resolution of 800 dpi, individual homes are clearly visible in larger reproductions. - Washington State Dept. of Transportation
About the image: This recently released view of Bainbridge Island is a composite of 18 separate photographs shot from an airplane at 12,000 feet, images recorded by the Aerial Photo Laboratory of the Washington State Department of Transportation on July 10, 2002. The photos were melded using digital imaging software; with a resolution of 800 dpi, individual homes are clearly visible in larger reproductions.
— image credit: Washington State Dept. of Transportation

Although early settlers from Back East marvelled at the beauties of Puget Sound and the surrounding mountains, it wasn’t scenery that brought them to Bainbridge Island.

It was trees – acres and acres of trees. More important, those trees were immediately adjacent to water – water that stretched all the way to San Francisco, where a gold-rush-fueled economy created an incessant demand for lumber, and where delivery by ship was the only feasible way of getting the wood there.

Prospects of servicing the San Francisco lumber market brought people like George Meigs to Bainbridge Island, where he built a sawmill at Port Madison. Other mills came to Port Blakely, where timbers were sent to mines in Montana, and turned into ships at Port Blakely and Eagle Harbor.

By the turn of the century – from 19th to 20th – most of the trees were gone. But nature meant Bainbridge to be forested, and forested it became again.

Today, Bainbridge’s trees are not just part of the physical landscape, but the political landscape as well. The basic question, which arises in a number of contexts, is whether the city needs to take active steps to protect trees, or whether trees will once again take care of themselves, as they have in the past.

City Council member Debbie Vancil, who has spearheaded the city’s forestry efforts, says it’s different this time.

“When the island was cut the first time, the trees grew back because the ecological systems continued to function,” Vancil said. “But with a growing population and the pollutants we have, if we took the trees out now, they wouldn’t come back.”

Vancil said the island has actually been logged twice – once for the value of the timber, and again in the 1940s and 1950s to create land for the farms that blanketed the island’s inland areas. But those uses were only temporary disruptions that did not permanently alter the environment.

Now, she fears, the island’s tree cover is being replaced by homes and pavement, creating impervious surfaces that won’t support new trees.

Islanders are all losers if we lose the tree cover, she says.

“Trees provide wildlife habitat, filter out air contaminants and use as nutrients materials that would otherwise pollute the water, which benefits salmon. And they can reduce stormwater runoff, which is a costly piece of infrastructure,” Vancil said. “There’s no sense in tearing up trees, a green infrastructure already there, then spending millions to rebuild gray infrastructure.”

But while most everyone agrees that trees are nice to look at, they’re difficult to look through. Tension between tree and view manifests itself on a number of fronts, from homeowner association battles over view-protection covenants at Bill Point to the throngs at City Hall last fall protesting proposals to include trees in shoreline buffer requirements.

Similarly, trees provide shade – a good thing – but block sunlight – also a good thing, and, some say, a scarcer commodity in this climate than trees.

And trees can’t be built over, meaning that virtually all development on Bainbridge requires removing some trees.

“It’s a delicate balance,” said architect Charles Wenzlau, who has designed a number of high-density, in-town projects.

“The more trees you preserve, the less room you have to build. The alternatives then are building higher, which costs more, or building less, which also costs more, because covering the costs of land and building with fewer units means you have to charge higher rents.”

**Losing our trees?

Whether island trees are in jeopardy is the subject of some dispute.

Vancil quotes from a study that compared aerial photographs taken in 1991 and 1996 and determined that forested areas dropped from 73 percent of the island to 50 percent in five years’ time. Yet census figures and state population estimates show that population increased 14 percent during that time span, and a 2002 aerial photograph shows that many of the non-forested areas, particularly outside of Winslow, were in older neighborhoods, such as New Sweden, Rolling Bay and Seabold.

The Bainbridge Island Municipal Code recognizes and protects trees in a myriad of ways.

* A vegetation-management ordinance limits the portion of tree cover that can be removed when a lot is subdivided – 20 percent in areas of large-lot zoning, up to 40 percent in higher-density areas. Additionally, 50 percent of the trees in the uncut area may be “thinned.”

* A landscaping ordinance regulates tree-cutting when a subdivision is developed, generally requiring both the protection of some “significant” trees, defined by size, and retention of some sort of buffer. The relationship between the two is variable – the bigger the buffer, the fewer internal trees must be retained.

* Greater tree protection is required in “critical areas” like slopes and wetlands.

But some say the city isn’t doing enough.

“We need to recognize significant trees that we can save,” said arborist Olaf Ribeiro. “The worst-case scenario would be like Mercer Island, where people thought they had enough trees, so they let development continue.”

The regulatory scheme isn’t as pervasive as it might seem, said city planning staffer Steve Morse. For one thing, the vegetation-management ordinance applies only to undivided lots. Once the property is reduced to its ultimate size, the requirements are gone.

“Take a 10-acre parcel that can be divided into four lots,” Morse said. “The subdivider can remove only 20 percent of the trees. But once a home is built on one two-and-a-half acre parcel, the homeowner can cut down the rest of the trees if he wants to.”

For another, the requirements don’t apply in those portions of the downtown core slated for high-density development.

“The expectation was that we would retain trees where appropriate in the outlying areas, but give people the flexibility to provide higher density in other areas,” Morse said.

**Suburban forestry

Yet it was in-town tree-cutting that sparked an ongoing city effort to develop more comprehensive tree-protection ordinances.

In the summer of 2000, contractors working for developer Rod McKenzie cut down all the trees on the Madison Avenue lot where the Courtyards On Madison project is located.

McKenzie said it was a mistake, the result of a miscommunication between himself and his contractor. But the outcry got the city moving. Spearheaded by then-new member Christine Nasser Rolfes, the council proposed beefing up penalties for tree-cutting.

When the concept reached the Planning Commission, Vancil suggested appointment of a subcommittee to study the whole problem of tree retention. That morphed into the Urban Forestry Committee, which became the Community Forestry Commission, which is currently preparing a broad tree-management plan.

To the consternation of some, that group’s initial recommendations, made last fall, did not include higher fines for errant cutting.

Vancil believes that a focus on individual trees and punitive sanctions is misplaced.

Instead, she favors a focus on ecosystems and education, protecting critical areas, maintaining wildlife corridors and using construction methods that save trees where possible, even in areas slated for high-density development.

“We can’t put up condos and keep a forest, but we don’t need to clear-cut lot-line to lot-line,” she said.

She acknowledges that in downtown Winslow, tree stewardship is going to mean more “putting back” – replanting after development – than retaining existing trees. But she thinks the city can do a better job educating builders about the type of tree to plant.

“We need to look at what gives shade, but doesn’t drop leaves that clog up the storm drain, and that will survive with a sidewalk built around it,” she said.

Ribeiro said education needs to be a two-way street.

“In communities where tree-retention programs work well, developers have taken time to sit down with the citizens. They learn what is important to the people, and make their plans as a result,” he said. “And when the people learn what is feasible and what is not, they can become more accepting.”

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