I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees

Trees currently cover between 28 and 33 percent of Seattle’s land, making us one of the nation’s greenest cities. But advocates for a new, stronger tree protection ordinance believe the city should go further to protect its canopy, by restricting tree removal in ways that could prevent new housing development in the single-family neighborhoods where most of Seattle’s large trees are located. In doing so, they have insisted that the only way to mitigate climate change is to take actions that prevent development in their exclusive neighborhoods—a literal example of failing to see the forest for the trees.

The city is currently considering amendments to the city’s existing tree protection ordinance that would add new protections for significant trees, create a “fee in lieu” of preserving specific trees that would fund new tree plantings elsewhere, and require property owners to replace any tree they remove that’s more than six inches in diameter, among other new rules. Advocates want the city to go further, by reducing the maximum size and number of trees that can be removed from vacant lots, for redevelopment, and by individual homeowners.

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One impact of greater tree protections would likely be less development in areas where density is allowed, including both urban villages (which were just modestly expanded under the Mandatory Housing Affordability act) and single-family areas where homeowners just gained the ability to build auxiliary units, including backyard cottages. Trees, unsurprisingly, are concentrated in areas of Seattle that are wealthy and white, and scarce in areas that are not; a 2016 city analysis found that in “census tracts with high numbers of people of color, tree canopy is as low as 11% while in areas with not many people of color there is 55% canopy cover.”

Given that disparity, it was hardly surprising that the people who showed up at city hall this morning to advocate for more stringent tree protections/development restrictions were people who identified themselves as residents of neighborhoods like Laurelhurst, Ballard, and North Seattle. One by one, they came up to make their case. A group was given extra time to sing a song decrying development, and then a member of that group, dressed up as a tree, shouted “I am a magnificent tree! … Every tree counts, especially us mature trees!” into the microphone. A man said developers who were building “million-dollar townhouses and large apartment buildings” in his neighborhood probably go home to neighborhoods with “very nice trees.” A woman said that development and the resultant tree removal is destroying “opportunities for tire swings, hammocks, tree climbing, playing with sticks, cool spots to place your picnic blanket [and] piles of leaves to jump into.” And a man asked the council if they had thought about drivers, asking rhetorically, “When it’s hot, where do you want to park?” and argued that “you need the trees” to keep cars cool.

Seattle could mandate that every tree removed from a single-family lot be replaced by one in public right-of-way currently used for parking, greening the streets that are used by everybody rather than just private backyards.

All this absurdity was just the precursor for what will likely be a lengthy debate over the proposed new tree protections. None of the proposals are especially unreasonable on their face. But it would be a shame if, taken together, they made it harder to build housing for the people that are moving here, the people who already live here, and the people who are being driven out by housing scarcity.

And, as Dan Bertolet at Sightline has pointed out, there are ways to protect and expand Seattle’s tree canopy that don’t involve telling people they can’t cut down six-inch trees or preventing development of new housing to spare a large tree in a vast single-family backyard.

For example, the city could allow developers to build taller buildings in exchange for protecting trees when replacing single-family houses with denser housing types. Seattle could mandate that every tree removed from a single-family lot be replaced by one in public right-of-way currently used for parking, greening the streets that are used by everybody rather than just private backyards. Or the city could target the use of in-lieu fees so that they fund new tree cover in the areas of town that are actually short on trees, such as Southeast Seattle.

None of those solutions will be proposed in earnest, because they would face enormous resistance from homeowners who want to protect not trees in general but “their” trees—the ones that shelter birds in their yards, provide piles of leaves for their kids to jump in, and shade their cars. Meanwhile, thanks to Seattle’s restrictive land use code, more and more people who would like to live in the city are forced to move to suburbs (created, incidentally, by clearcutting forests) and drive to their jobs—a perverse inversion of the idea that planting and protecting trees is the solution to climate change.

5 thoughts on “I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees”

  1. The problem with restrictions like these are that they are counter productive. If you are really concerned about *overall* tree coverage, then this will do more harm than good. Development within the city, by its very nature, will involve less loss of mature trees than in the suburbs. This is especially true if you are adding an apartment. One tiny apartment can hold as many people as a huge suburban housing development.

    Furthermore, the ecosystem in our suburbs is on the edge of wilderness. Loss of trees means loss of habitat for bears, cougars, lynx and other wild Northwest species. What is true for animals is true for plants. You may find a native tree in someone’s Seattle backyard, but you won’t find the native ecosystem that exists right outside of Issaquah. Yet if we reduce development in Seattle, we push it towards Issaquah

    Then there is global warming. The more urban the development, the more people take transit, or walk to their destination.

    This also discourages people from planting new trees. My wife and I planted an incense cedar tree about 20 years, when we first got married. The thing is huge now. At some point, it will have to be taken down. But if I have to get a bunch of permits and pay a fine to take it out, I’ll never plant another big tree again. Big trees become a liability when buying property.

    If they do pass a new, restrictive law, then my guess is there will be a grace period. It likely won’t go into law right away. I would imagine a lot of people will then immediately start cutting. I know I will. I won’t wait ten or twenty years to cut down the tree, I’ll do it right away.

    This is really a bad idea. If they want more trees, they should incentivize the planting and retention of more trees. More importantly, we should look at the big picture, and try and increase the population inside the city, while preventing sprawl outside it.

  2. What I see in some criticisms of the “tree people” is a classic instance of groups that have common interests being pitted against each other (“If you are for saving trees, you are against affordable housing” and vice versa). Affordable housing advocates and advocates for greater tree canopy have common cause–a livable city. People who need and should have access to affordable housing also need and should have access to public parks, clean air, protection from “heat islands” and other ecological services that trees provide. Neighborhoods that had already been “de-treed” should be prioritized for “re-treeing.”

    In my neighborhood (Ballard–one of those called out in the article), trees are not being lost to affordable housing. Across my alley, two modest-rent bungalows have been boarded up for nearly a year, empty and slated for demolition to be replaced by units whose rent will be significantly higher. This–and MacMansions–are the rule in this neighborhood. The neighborhood handyman is now living in a camper van, having lost his low-rent apartment to a higher-rent development.

    When the “tree people” are pitted against the “affordable housing” people, the winners are developers. Seattle’s policies and regulations are entirely inadequate in terms of requiring developers to save trees AND create affordable housing. Trees and adequate housing are not mutually exclusive, and we should be insisting that developers building the now-ubiquitous “Ballard Boxes” and MacMansions, at considerable profit, pay the added costs for the construction methods and design principles that enhance both.

    1. Thankyou Melinda for bringing up the common cause. There is no reason to use the tree preservation issue as yet another source of division and war against those with presumed privilege. Painting the tree lover as a NIMBY against affordable housing gets us nowhere. (As others note here, the housing being put in where trees stood is almost universally luxury housing that only the very rich two-income household can afford.) And as far as the blog author’s characterization of the trees as “mine” on “my” property: that is not how ecosystems work. It takes corridors of yards, trees, green space AND official parks to keep the bird and creature life healthy.

  3. I’ve been following this issue for a while now and am writing my own piece for radio and likely print. I don’t know if Barnett attended any city council hearings prior to yesterday’s hearing, but the message has long been one that favors housing — in particular affordable housing — AND mature trees. Many advocates are renters themselves and struggle to find such housing. Their concern for mature trees is inclusive. Trees are for everyone. I too am a renter on a fairly barren block and keep hope alive that a mature conifer on the lot next door will remain. That tree provides beauty and ecosystem services; habitat for birds. Protection from the sun.

    It’s troubling that those who are speaking on behalf of trees are being given the NIMBY label. That’s not been my experience since seeing a grove of trees cut down that was once home to merlins, those fierce urban raptors who’d returned to the Victory Heights neighborhood back in 2008. I did a story about them then and was deeply troubled to learn that the trees they nested in were destroyed.

    For affordable housing? No. For two mini-mansions.

    Yes, we can build tall and have density — but we can also get a lot smarter about protecting trees. Progressive Seattle prides itself on being “green, but isn’t yet seeing the forest for the trees. During a climate emergency trees are natural allies: their canopies absorb and filter particulates during wildfires and help reduce asthma, skin cancer and stress related illnesses by filtering out polluted air. Their roots store storm water pollution and stop it from rushing into waterways. They’re a public health resource. Ken Workman, a Duwamish Tribal Council Member knows the value of trees. The Duwamish Tree Project is identifying the best places to plant trees all over Southpark and Georgetown. Maria Batayola with the Beacon City Council has testified on the need for more trees in her neighborhood on several occasions.

    Ecobuilding is widely praised. But what about ecolandscaping? It takes more planning and energy — and likely will require new developer codes.

    But is that too much to ask during a climate crisis?

    It’s easy to label and toss out negatives on those trying to protect mature tree canopy. It’s harder to convince city leaders, DCI and others of why the need is so great.

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