City of SeaTac challenges Port on lack of environmental review of tree cutting plan


By Jack Mayne

The City of SeaTac has told the Port of Seattle it objects to its plan to cut down 2,750 trees in the flight paths of the airport because of its failure to conduct a full environmental review of the project.

The City’s problem with the review done by the Port is that it did an environmental study of the impact of only one of the three phases of the removal program.

Although the appeal is at the discretion of the SeaTac city staff, the City Council had signaled its solid support for the action at its meeting Tuesday (Sept. 20).



First phase studied
At the Council meeting, Acting City Manager Joe Scorcio said the Port’s environmental standards for the tree program was reviewed by the city even though state environmental law says the Port has wide latitude on what those environmental standards are.

The first phase – on Port-owned property – was the only part the port did a study of, said Scorcio.

The second phase of the tree program, which would see replacement trees and vegetation accomplished, would take place in 2017. It would include all commercially owned lands and publicly owned properties in Burien, Des Moines, SeaTac, on state owned land like highway rights of way, and on land owned by the Highline School District.

In 2018, the Port would carry out the final portion, phase 3. That would include trees considered too tall or that would grow to a prohibited height on all residential properties in the flight corridors.

For this reason, conducting an environmental review only of the first phase, airport property, and not on the other lands is a “piecemeal and segmented environmental review” that is flawed.

‘Failure to analyze’
The city says in its appeal that the Port’s “failure to analyze the cumulative impacts of the program when it conducted its environmental review was contrary to law. As a result, the environmental statement issued by the Port was in error and the City of SeaTac seeks judicial review” of that phase of the tree removal program.

At the Council meeting Tuesday, Councilmember Peter Kwon said it did not make sense that the Port was going to cut down 1,100 trees on its own property, but would not make an environmental impact study of the area where another 1,580 trees would be removed.

“The environmental document is not about the proposal (to cut down the trees), but about (whether) did they analyze the impacts of the proposal adequately,” Scorcio told the City Council.

The city is not appealing the decision to cut down the trees, only that there was not enough environmental review of the action to support the project.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to challenge the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) basic national order to all airports that have air traffic control towers. The FAA order to clear airport flight paths of obstructions requires the Port, as the operator of a flight control facility, to carry out the clearance order.

Scorcio said the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) “says that if you already know you are going to do three phases, then you should do an environmental review of all three.”

The phasing of the project into three segments is something the city has objected to all along, he said, not that it is necessarily wrong, but not the way SeaTac officials would do it.

In addition, the law puts the burden of proof on the City of SeaTac that the Port did not do enough work or that the review was improperly done, Scorcio said.

The city’s appeal says, “Probable impacts from the entire Flight Corridor Safety Project include noise, air quality, light, glare, and soil erosion, and have not been identified and mitigated in this subject environmental review and Final Mitigated Determination of Non Significance.”

The appeal says that since a majority of the program is located within the city, “any quantitative change in the land at or surrounding the airport has a direct impact on the environmental factors considered under the SEPA process, i.e. noise, light, glare, air quality, etc., and would result in ‘immediate, concrete and specific’ harm to the city.”

SeaTac adds, “Conducting piecemeal environmental review of the Flight Corridor Safety Program and failing to conduct a cumulative impact analysis constitutes a procedural defect under SEPA that directly impacts the city.”

The city appeal said that even though it is asked that the “Port analyze the cumulative impacts of not just Phase 1, but all three phases in the same environmental document, the Port has refused to do so. The Port’s decision is contrary to SEPA and should not be allowed.”

Port officials said that because “any of the individual obstructions can be removed without necessarily compelling the removal of other obstructions in different locations.”

But SeaTac’s appeal says, “Frankly, this assertion by the Port is without merit. Stated a different way, cutting down one tree doesn’t require cutting down another, so there is no close relation.”

Therefore a court should rule the Port is not in compliance with the state environmental law.


3 Responses to “City of SeaTac challenges Port on lack of environmental review of tree cutting plan”
  1. Vicki Lockwood says:

    I read the appeal and am pleased that we are asking for a legal determination as to whether or not the POS has done their due diligence in analyzing the total cumulative effect of their proposed 3-phase tree removal. I was at the Council Meeting where the POS representatives stated that the FAA does NOT require removal of the trees … they said the FAA standards could be met by placing a flashing beacon on those trees that encroach into the protected air space. Then they indicated this was not a feasible solution for their situation.

    It is unfathomable to me that there are as many trees as the POS has identified that are actually or are ‘about to’ encroach on the protected air space. It feels to me as if they are planning to do something more akin to clear cutting areas rather than the selective cutting of individual trees on their property.

    My thanks to the Council for supporting the filing of this appeal, and cudos to the City Staff who prepared the appeal on such short notice.

  2. Jen says:

    If the trees are to tall and need to be cut down, then how close are these planes to houses? My parents live in the P5 area and I’m pretty sure they will be loosing their trees that have been there for over 50 years. They have a 3 story house which is around 30′ high.

  3. Nathan says:

    I dont think the City of Seatac’s reasoning for this is legitimate. Tree removal should always be the last resort, especially in this case where you have over 2,000 trees. Fortunately there are good people in this world who do care but others who are so ‘caught up’ it can depress you by what you read and hear.