Ruling on Tree Regulations Coming Soon, City Attorney Filed Charges in Just Over Half of Cases This Year

1. The Seattle Hearing Examiner is expected to rule as soon as next week on a case in which the Master Builders Association of King County and Seattle—a business group that represents housing developers—is seeking a more thorough review of a new tree ordinance that would make it harder to remove trees on private property. The goal of the new restrictions, MBAKS argues, isn’t to protect Seattle’s tree canopy (which includes many trees on public property that wouldn’t be subject to the new restrictions); it’s to prevent new housing in historically exclusive single-family neighborhoods.

“There are people and groups in our City that care deeply about trees and about the health of Seattle’s urban forest,” MBAKS wrote in a letter to Mayor Bruce Harrell last week. “Those are the people and groups we’d like to work with. However, the loudest voices are anti-development groups that have weaponized tree protection to support their singular goal of stopping development in their beloved single-family neighborhoods.”

The new tree ordinance would lower the size threshold for regulated “significant” and “exceptional” trees and make them harder or illegal for private property owners to remove; removing a tree larger than 12 inches in diameter, for example, would require a developer to either replant the tree on site or pay a fee based on the value of the tree.

Technically, the appeal questions the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection’s “determination of non-significance” under the State Environmental Policy Act—essentially a conclusion that imposing new restrictions on tree removal (and thus development) will have no significant impact on the city’s environmental policies or its Comprehensive Plan, which guides future development and land use decisions in the city. SDCI and TreePAC are the two groups opposing the Master Builders’ appeal.

The comprehensive plan encourages density inside neighborhoods as a bulwark against suburban sprawl and social inequity, since Seattle’s tree canopy is heavily concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods that were historically redlined to keep people of color out. In addition to more analysis that looks at density, not just privately owned trees, MBAKS has asked the city to consider requiring street trees when developers build new detached houses in single-family zones.

Chart showing Seattle City Attorney's Office Case Filing decisions (filed or declined), January-June 2022

2. City attorney Ann Davison, who announced in February that she would decide whether to file charges in her office receives from the police department within five days, decided to file charges in just over 56 percent of cases between the day she announced the new policy and late June of this year, records PubliCola obtained through a disclosure request show.

This represents a significant uptick in the percentage of cases Davison’s office filed compared to her predecessor, Pete Holmes’, filing rate during the pandemic, but is similar to Holmes’ pre-COVID filing rates when compared to data provided (in chart form) in a report from Davison’s office earlier this year. The overall number of cases coming in from SPD is lower than before 2020 because of a number of factors, including SPD’s decision to stop pulling people over for some minor traffic violations; Davison’s report suggests the cause is “the loss of a significant number of SPD officers.”

The charges Davison declined to file most frequently after announcing the close-in-time filing policy on February 7 included assault, assault with sexual motivation, theft, and property destruction; the charges she has filed most frequently also included assault and theft along with trespassing, harassment, and charges that involve driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Case filings declined during the pandemic, in part, because the court shut down during COVID, creating a massive backlog that the municipal court is still struggling to work through. King County’s jails, meanwhile, remain understaffed even as jail populations rise, leading to conditions that both jail staffers and defense attorneys have described to PubliCola as inhumane. The more misdemeanor cases Seattle sends into this system, the greater the downstream backlog becomes.

3 thoughts on “Ruling on Tree Regulations Coming Soon, City Attorney Filed Charges in Just Over Half of Cases This Year”

  1. I’m curious how the new law will work. My wife and I planted a few trees in our backyard a few years back. They are big now. One of them — an incense cedar — is quite large. Does this mean I can’t cut it down? If so, doesn’t this discourage me from ever planting another tree?

  2. It’s true. Builders are granted exceptions for almost anything – height limits, percentage of lot coverage, size of backyard cottages – now they are even taking advantage of the loophole they created in the backyard cottage law so they can make an HOA and sell the home and cottage as condominiums. And after one of these is built there is no room for a tree on the lot.

  3. Why quote the Builders about the motivations of TreePAC when you could ask TreePac instead? I know for a fact that their motivation is not to prevent more housing, but instead to balance the need for more housing with the need to maintain a healthy tree canopy for the sake of shade, heat islands, to prevent erosion and improve drainage and to improve air quality.

    In fact, the former single-family zones are the only areas that exceed Seattle’s average tree canopy of 32% ( in 2018). Parks average only 20% tree canopy and rights-of-ways have too few trees to compensate. The fact is, protecting and restoring our tree canopy can only be done in people’s yards. SDCI has been a questionable partner in this because they almost always grant developers exceptions in their land use permits. This is because keeping a tree ” interferes with the maximum square footage” of the project, i.e., less profit. Clearly, trees have no “standing” in the Permitting Dept.

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