A plaque in front of the Betty Bowen Viewpoint in Marshall Park says that someone standing there in 1792 would have seen His Britannic Majesty's flagship Discovery anchored three miles west off Alki Point.
That would seem to be wishful thinking, judging from today's condition at the Queen Anne park and what must have been a heavily forested hillside more than two centuries ago.
But trees growing up from below on an extremely steep slope also block most of the view these days, and that's a problem for Seattle Parks and Recreation. It's also a problem for people living at the foot of the slope - but for a different reason.
According to the parks department, Marshall Park is a protected public viewpoint that needs to be preserved under provisions in the State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA). So a couple of years ago Parks came up with a vegetation-management plan to do just that.
Speaking at a meeting of the Queen Anne Community Council's parks committee last week, Parks' urban forester Eliza Davidson said the plan's objective is to convert vegetation in 24 public viewpoint sites throughout the city "so they are permanently preserved." To do that, she said, Parks is going to cut down many of the trees on the slope to open up most of the view.
"We won't try to completely erase all of the trees," Davidson stressed.
In addition, the felled trees will be replaced with low-growing species. "We want to replant at least one-to-one, maybe more," she said. Parks also wants to strip the slope of mostly invasive plants such as English ivy, lay down erosion-control blankets, stake out compost-filled "plush socks," hydroseed the slope and plant a double row of hedges at the top.
Ideally, Parks would like to replant the ground cover on the slopes with native species of plants, but that's not going to happen right away - if ever. "We simply don't have the resources to plant as many plants as we'd like," Davidson said.
The plan may sound good on paper, but people living at the foot of the steep hill say they're afraid that the work to reclaim a view will cause erosion and trigger landslides that will wipe out their homes.
Davidson countered that vegetation has a lot to do with erosion. "It has nothing to do with slides," she said, adding that there is no history of slides at the site.
Parks' lead urban forester Mark Mead also said at the meeting that stability on slopes has more to do with underlying geology than surface vegetation. However, practically everybody at the meeting remained skeptical about the assurances - especially Traci Goodwin, a land-use attorney who lives at the bottom of the slope.
Goodwin thanked Mead and Davidson for coming to an earlier meeting with her and some of her neighbors. "But I have to say I am really concerned and shocked by this proposal," she added.
Parks simply doesn't have enough information to make the appropriate decision for a slope that varies from a 50 to 75 percent grade, according to Goodwin. She also disputed that SEPA requires the city to cut down trees to reclaim public viewpoints.
But Goodwin has concentrated most of her objections on another SEPA section, one dealing with "environmentally critical areas" such as Marshall Park because of its steep slopes. Citing environmental case law and city codes in a June 6 letter to Parks Superintendent Ken Bounds, Goodwin said the environmentally critical designation requires that the city conduct a "project-level SEPA review." Parks had proposed doing a "plan-level" review, but the project-level review is preferable, she says, because the Parks version "typically doesn't examine the probable adverse environmental impacts at any given physical location."
Parks spokeswoman Dewey Potter said last week that the city's law department had just informed the department that it needed to prepare a lengthy environmental SEPA checklist for each of the 24 sites listed in the vegetation-management plan. That could trigger a threshold determination that would require a full-blown environment impact study that addresses Goodwin's concerns, but she still maintained that a project-level review would be better.
The checklists should be able to determine if there would be probable significant adverse impacts caused by the projects, according to Alan Justad, a spokesman from the Department of Planning and Development. The DPD is involved because it has to issue permits for any work. If probable adverse impacts are identified, the project would be given a Determination of Significance, a status that would require a "comprehensive" environmental review, Justad added.
The Marshall Park project is a pilot project and just the latest in a series of contentious Parks plans for managing vegetation on its property. The same kind of work at Kerry Park on Queen Anne Hill and at the West Raye Street Bowl off Magnolia Boulevard also caused a public uproar.
Still to come, according to the vegetation plan, are projects in Bye Kracke Park on Queen Anne Hill, Myrtle Edwards Park, and Commodore Park and the Daybreak Star center in Magnolia.