The Tacoma Narrows stretches out in blue splendor as Steve Fabre looks out the large front window of his University Place home on a clear afternoon.
But the scenery is spoiled for him when he looks at the three large cherry trees across the street that block what he said was once a panoramic view of the waterway.
“It just drives me nuts,” Fabre said.
The concerns raised by him and by residents on other UP streets have prompted University Place leaders to launch a community discussion about how best to protect views obstructed by maturing trees and other vegetation.
The City Council has asked the planning commission to study the issue and recommend policies. The commission likely will take up the issue in early 2013, said Development Services Director David Swindale.
University Place is known for its marine views, from Chambers Bay to Day Island, and its mountain vistas, from the Olympics to Mount Rainier.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, before homes were built along and upslope from the shores of Puget Sound, crews cleared the sites of trees and vegetation. UP was not yet a city. As Fabre’s neighborhood was developed, property owners replanted on private and public land.
Over time, some homeowners have seen their enviable Puget Sound views fully or partly blocked.
The city has adopted rules to prevent homes and buildings from obstructing views. For instance, builders are barred from mounding dirt on a construction site to raise a home. And on Day Island’s southern spit, a maximum building height was established.
But UP’s regulations are silent on how to manage natural sight barriers.
State law restricts what cities can impose on private properties to protect views from growing trees, City Attorney Steve Victor explained.
Cities have no authority to regulate the height of existing trees or order their removal. They have some limited authority to regulate newly planted trees, such as allowing only certain species, Victor said.
“Once they’re there, and it’s private property, you lose the ability to compel maintenance at a certain height,” he said.
On public property, the city has full authority to regulate trees – and that’s why Fabre would like University Place to make some changes.
Current city regulations allow only the removal and pruning of dead or diseased trees on public property. And that work requires a permit.
Fabre contends the rules encourage people to plant trees on one hand but places obstacles toward maintaining them on the other.
“The ordinances are conflicting,” he said.
City officials confirm the cherry trees on Olympic Drive, across the street from Fabre, appear to be on public property. They front the home of Bill and Andrea Holt, who have lived there for 40 years.
The Holts said they hired someone to plant the trees a quarter-century ago to provide some privacy and have maintained them over the years. Bill Holt, an attorney who works occasionally for The News Tribune, said he’s unsure if officials were consulted before the trees were planted to verify they were on private property, but he said he’s certain the trees are partially on his land.
The Holts said they were surprised by their neighbor’s concern. Andrea Holt said Fabre only briefly mentioned the trees in passing during a brief conversation several years ago. No one else has complained about them, she said.
“We thought we were being good neighbors by having them pruned every other year, but apparently not,” Andrea Holt said.
Fabre’s family has owned his home for decades; he recalls a time when the Sound’s entire expanse was visible, back before the home and trees went up across the street.
The trees have grown significantly in the last 18 months, he said.
Fabre said it’s difficult to get used to an unobstructed view and then have it taken away. And he worries the trees may affect his property values.
But he acknowledged there’s nothing he can do about it unless the city changes its regulations.
“We’re handicapped here,” he said.