Mercer Is. fells tree ordinance

It took more than three years for Mercer Island to craft an ordinance spelling out how and when trees can be cut and trimmed. It took irate residents only a few weeks to persuade the City Council to repeal the controversial ordinance and start over.

The council, facing a firestorm of protest as well as Mercer Island's first-ever referendum, repealed the ordinance 7-0 in a special meeting that drew more than 125 people Tuesday night.

The referendum, validated last week after ordinance opponents obtained more than 3,500 signatures, required the council to repeal the measure or put it on the November ballot.

Islanders were largely upset about two provisions in the 18-page ordinance: one that required city permission to cut down trees on flat lots if doing so would bring the number of trees on the property below a minimum standard, and one that allowed requests for city permission to prune public trees for views or for sunlight. In the past, residents could not make requests to trim trees on public property.

The city defended the flat-lot provision, claiming it would prevent abuses, particularly the clear-cutting of lots. But residents said that the ordinance infringed on their property rights and that they were capable of preserving the island's tree canopy without City Hall intruding.

At Tuesday night's meeting, Councilman Dan Grausz, co-author of the ordinance, apologized for not communicating better as the ordinance was being drafted and approved in June.

"We're trying to protect trees," he said. "Because of our failure to adequately explain it ... we have scared people to death. That was never our intention."

The council directed the city staff to redraft an ordinance that would exclude regulation on flat lots, limit pruning of trees on public land and simplify getting permits to cut trees. The city Planning Commission will review the proposed ordinance before submitting it to the council for a decision, said City Attorney Londi Lindell. She said the council probably would vote on the proposal this fall.

Councilman Sven Goldmanis, who at first advocated putting the ordinance on the ballot, said he voted to repeal because others on the council seemed intent on redrafting the measure. A tree-ordinance campaign would also require money.

Ira Appelman, a resident who led the charge for the referendum, said he was satisfied with the vote.

"The important thing is it was repealed," he said. "I think the new ordinance was not good law."

Nicole Tsong can be reached at 206-464-2793 or