Rantz: Edmonds housing stalled over a small tree, extortion policy

Feb 26, 2024, 5:55 PM

Edmonds housing...

Nathan Rimmer next to the tree in question, delaying Edmonds housing plans. (Photo courtesy of the Pacific Legal Foundation)

(Photo courtesy of the Pacific Legal Foundation)

The City of Edmonds needlessly withheld a building permit for a new housing project because of one single tree. The process should have taken a few months. Instead, it took nearly two years and it was nothing short of extortion.

Real estate professional Nathan Rimmer planned to build a family home on a small, vacant residential lot that he owned. On March 27, 2022, he submitted his permit and building plans to the city. Rather than approve the plan, the city of Edmonds tried to usurp Rimmer’s property rights over an ornamental dogwood tree on his property.

The city had recently adopted an ordinance stopping property owners from freely removing trees under most circumstances. If its removal is necessary for housing, the property owner is forced to pay for replacement tree(s). Because the tree is in the middle of the lot, it wouldn’t be possible to build the home unless it was removed.

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City of Edmonds starts its tree extortion despite housing goals

Even though the tree is relatively small, the city required Rimmer to pay for two replacement trees, declaring them “significant” because, according to Rimmer’s attorneys, its trunk measures over six inches and the combined diameter of the two leader branches fell between 10 and 14 inches.

But the city didn’t stop with its demand that Rimmer cover the costs of two replacement trees.

The city of Edmonds’ tree code would also force Rimmer to dedicate a portion of his property for the two new trees’ permanent protection. He would even have to record the details on his property title. The city of Edmonds offered no limit to its demand to protect the tree should Rimmer sell the property. In other words, he would still be responsible for preservation and maintenance after he sold the home.

The city, Rimmer said, wouldn’t even tell him if his building permit would be approved if he complied.

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Property owner fights back

Rimmer told the city of Edmonds that he would not comply with the onerous tree code, which he argued was unconstitutional. He said that officials with the city of Edmonds ignored his requests after that, simply insisting he comply with their rules.

Over a year went by as Rimmer tried to get the city to address his concerns. On June 21, 2023, he was told by the senior planner that his permit application will expire in a little over a month if he did not comply.

Without any other options, Rimmer filed a lawsuit via the Pacific Legal Foundation on December 29, 2023 in Snohomish County Superior Court. It didn’t take long for Judge George Appel to side with Rimmer, ordering the city to grant the building permit. The judge agreed that the conditions placed on Rimmer were unconstitutional.

This entire process wasn’t merely unnecessary. It was government extortion.

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While Democrats aim to restrict one’s right to private property ownership, particularly when it comes to onerous rent control schemes and other extreme limitations on landlords, the U.S. Supreme Court has been quite clear. In Nollan v. California Coastal Commissionthe Court called these kinds of policies an “out-and-out plan of extortion.”

This decision wasn’t even made because of some societal harm that removing this one ornamental tree would cause. The city of Edmonds simply hoped to force residents to plant more trees so the city may avoid the expense. That it stopped a housing project for nearly two years does not matter.

This lawsuit isn’t happening in a bubble. From Seattle and Yakima to Vancouver and Spokane, housing affordability concerns have taken center stage. It’s why locals have compared the housing market in Washington to much cheaper nearby states like Idaho, Arizona, and Nevada.

Ironically, in February 2023, the then-mayor and council president complained to state lawmakers that legislation to address a purported housing crisis would strip them of the ability to better plan for growth. They argued in the letter that the mayor and council “are most familiar with local conditions” and it would allow them “to develop nuanced zoning changes that are in alignment with the state’s vision of increased housing capacity.”

But the city of Edmonds is clearly incapable of nuance. They stopped a house from being built because of a single, wholly unimportant tree.

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Rantz: Edmonds housing stalled over a small tree, extortion policy