Thursday, December 14, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wedgwood defends its Christmas-tree lot

Seattle Times staff

Every holiday season for nearly 40 years, the Hunter clan has trucked its harvest of pines and firs from the family's 2,500-acre farm near Union, south of the Hood Canal, to the 2/3-acre lot it owns in Wedgwood.

From the day after Thanksgiving to the day before Christmas, city folk by the thousands wander through aisles of fresh trees, selecting the comeliest for display in their living rooms.

In summer, an Olympia farmer sells berries at the lot. But for the rest of the year, the lot at 7744 35th Ave. N.E. is vacant except for 13 light poles, the red cashier's hut, some awnings and sheds and a nursery building that predates even the Hunters' ownership.

Those structures, which provide illumination and shelter to customers and the 10 members of the Hunter family who work the lot, may not be here next year. City regulators, prompted by a neighbor's complaint, might require the Hunters to remove them because they're a nonconforming use (the property is zoned residential) and were built without permits.

Neighbors and customers are rallying behind the Hunters.

On the counter of the tree lot's cashier hut, a petition that supports retaining the Hunters' operation has reached page 81. Each sheet has 20 lines for signatures.

Helen Carter of Lake City said she has bought trees at the Hunters' every year for the past 40 years "This is a Christmas tradition, an institution. I'd like to have these people living in the neighborhood all year," she said.

The Hunters, who have peddled trees at the Wedgwood lot since the 1950s, vow to keep returning, even if it means setting up in trailers as they did so long ago.

"This is our main source of income to support the farm in the winter," said Carol Hunter, who manages the lot with her son, Bill Hunter Jr. He represents the fifth generation to farm their Union property, which the family has worked since the 1880s. They've grown Christmas trees since the 1940s.

"Our sales houses have sat here for 25 years and no one said anything," Carol Hunter said. "I really don't want to work out of a travel trailer again, but we'll work something out. We'll become a portable society again if we have to."

In earlier days, the neighborhood consisted mostly of single-family houses on large lots which have since been subdivided, said Bill Hunter Jr.

"This neighborhood developed up around us," he said. "We were here even before the post office," he said, nodding toward the large brick building to the south.

Also to the south, about a block away, is the aggrieved neighbor. The city declined to name him because he requested anonymity in his complaint. In September last year, the man contacted the city's zone-enforcement office about possible land-use violations on the Hunters' lot, Bill Hunter said.

That neighbor is the only person to have complained, say city staff, neighbors and the Hunters themselves.

Caught between the neighbor's grievance and the lot's popularity is the city, which is legally obligated to investigate and take action once a complaint is filed.

"Even if we eventually recommend denial, it would not be without sympathy," said Dave Van Skike, land-use planner handling the case for the city's Department of Design, Construction and Land Use. "The neighborhood really likes this thing."

What the neighborhood likes are the Christmas music, the Christmas lights, the Christmas trees, of course--and the lot's park-like status during the remainder of the year. It's the only open space for blocks and blocks.

The holiday use of the lot to sell trees is not a problem, as far as the city is concerned. But its structures, which were built without permits, are.

"There's no way we can continue to leave those structures there unless we get a different zoning designation to allow them," said Michael Aippersbach, a consultant hired by the Hunters.

So the Hunters are asking for what's known as a contract rezone, under which the lot's buildings and current use would be granted specific approval. The Hunters expect they'll prevail. They're making no contingency plans. Carol Hunter is adamant that the family will not sell the property, zoned for lucrative multi- and single-family use, even though realtors have traveled all the way to Union to make pitches on behalf of potential buyers.

That should please people like Leo Mahan, property management chairman of the Presbyterian church next door. "We find that their use of the tree lot adds an incredible effervescence to the Christmas season," he said. "They've been very gracious, and we enjoy them."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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