Byzantine Tree Regulations Won’t Save Seattle’s Urban Forest

By Erica C. Barnett

Advocates for preserving Seattle’s existing trees could soon achieve some of their longstanding goals when the city updates its city’s tree ordinance, which restricts which trees private property owners can remove and how much they must pay the city to do so. The proposed new rules would impose new restrictions on about 48,000 trees citywide, more than tripling the number of privately owned trees under the city’s regulatory purview.

The aim of the tree ordinance, at least according to the tree ordinance, is to “preserve and enhance the City’s physical and aesthetic character by preventing untimely and indiscriminate removal or destruction of trees” while “balancing other citywide priorities such as housing production.” A secondary goal is to reduce historical inequities in Seattle’s tree coverage—wealthy, white neighborhoods in north Seattle neighborhoods benefit from a lush tree canopy while much of of Southeast Seattle is comparatively barren, and losing ground—by planting trees, using payments from developers to right historical wrongs.

The proposal, which the city council’s land use committee plans to pass later this month, creates complex new regulatory maze for developers, and ordinary homeowners who want to remove trees on their own property, to navigate. The new rules will make it harder, or more expensive, for housing developers and homeowners to remove trees on their property, and ban the removal of large “heritage” trees for virtually any reason.

The rules impose new restrictions on trees between 12 and 36 inches in diameter, requiring land owners to replace the tree with one that will grow to the same size or pay a “payment in lieu” of replacement that ranges from $2,833 (for trees between 12 and 24 inches in diameter) to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the tree.

Under the new rules, all trees larger than 6 inches in diameter would fall into one of four “tiers” that would correspond with new restrictions on their removal. At the small end, the proposed new rules will allow homeowners and residential developers to remove up to two “tier 4” trees—those with diameters between 6 and 12 inches—every three years—a significant reduction from the current rule, which allows the removal of up to three such trees per year. On high end, the rules will ban the removal of “tier 1,” or “heritage,” trees, under any circumstances other than a documented hazard or emergency.  Certain trees, including madronas and spruce trees, will become “heritage” trees as soon as they reach six inches in diameter.

The rules impose new restrictions on trees between 12 and 36 inches in diameter, requiring land owners to replace the tree with one that will grow to the same size or pay a “payment in lieu” of replacement that ranges from $2,833 (for trees between 12 and 24 inches in diameter) to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the tree. The proposal decreases the threshold for an “exceptional” tree from 30 to 24 inches; under the formula the city uses, the fee to remove a 25-inch tree, which is just above the new threshold, would be $8,767.

To monitor and enforce all these new regulations, and many more besides, the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections says it will need to hire three new full-time staffers at an initial cost of $273,000 a year. That more than offsets the revenues the city expects to receive from payments in lieu of tree plantings, which will be used to plant new trees on city-owned property—an estimated $191,000 in the first year.

Analysis of the tree legislation didn’t include the exact cost of replacing trees removed for development. But using the city’s own average “nursery purchase price” of $2,833 per tree, that $191,000 would plant about 67 trees citywide—hardly enough to address geographical inequities in the city’s tree canopy, which has resulted in heat islands across Southeast Seattle and other historically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Imposing new restrictions on tree removal will probably result in less housing development, especially from affordable-housing developers who can’t just add the cost of new regulations onto their residents’ monthly rent. Tree-preservation advocates, who often rail against development, may well see this as a win. What it almost certainly won’t do is keep Seattle’s tree canopy from shrinking or make the city’s “urban forest” sustainable.

The obvious way to address a declining tree canopy and add trees in the parts of the city that lack them is for the city, not private property owners, to plant (and make room for) more trees. Yet the tree ordinance barely mentions trees in public spaces, which make up 36 percent of the “Urban Forestry Management Units” in the city—mentioning street trees only in the context of property owners’ obligations to maintain and replace them.

At a meeting of the land use committee last week, Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents Southeast Seattle, was the only committee member who mentioned this obvious point. “I’m interested in how we actually plant more trees… in areas where we don’t have enough,” Morales said, “particularly in some parts of the city [where there are] potential impacts on the cost of housing production, which we also know we need desperately.” With just three meetings left before the committee passes the legislation, time is running out for her colleagues to listen.

8 thoughts on “Byzantine Tree Regulations Won’t Save Seattle’s Urban Forest”

  1. The Oregon Legislature mandated 4 plexes on city lots and Portland enacted code to do that 2 years ago. Seeing the increased tree loss, Portland, last November, updated their tree code to require a 20% “Required Tree Area” in their “Multi Dwelling Residential” zone and 40% in their “One to Four Family Residential” zone. Seattle needs to think creatively about how and where housing is built and how best to save trees. We need both the increased housing density and we also need trees to keep our neighborhoods healthy and livable.
    The Washington State Senate just passed HB 1110 requiring cities over 75,000 to mandate that 4 plexes and 6 plexes can be built in most single family zones. In Seattle the residential neighborhood zone which currently allows a single house and an attached dwelling unit and a detached dwelling unit will increase in density similar to our current multifamily zone. Builders want a guaranteed 85% lot coverage in the multifamily zone in Seattle’s 2023 draft Tree Ordinance update. Seattle’s current neighborhood zone has a 34% tree canopy cover while the multifamily zones have only a 23% canopy cover
    Seattle needs to follow Portland’s Oregon lead to set aside dedicated tree retention and tree planting areas during development. The city needs to evaluate its current zoning and urban forest canopy goals and devise a plan to both fit in multifamily housing and save trees. The alternative is rapidly decreasing number of trees and canopy cover across our city. One way is to build up rather than building townhouses that spread out over most of the lot and leave no space for trees. Another is for Seattle’s building department to work with developers on placing housing on lots so more trees can be protected. What ideas do you have? Seattle is in for big changes for sure.

  2. The stick is necessary. There are too many chainsaw warriors out there going door-to-door in SE Seattle, preying on unwitting immigrant homeowners, especially on recently purchased properties. On my street, one of few with LOTS of big trees, 100% of the time, one of these chainsaw-toting people have shown up and tried to convince the new homeowner that the trees are sick or dying (a helluva lot like SDOT does when they want trees out of their way). The chainsaw-toting guys are not certified arborists; hell, they aren’t even licensed businesses. But these are the ones who are helping de-nude this quadrant of Seattle.

    ECB is just expanding on the recent Urbanist article on this topic, albeit with actual dollar figures. Which are really interesting, because the dollars quoted to plant a tree are kind of out of whack with what nurseries actually charge. The City has a really great tree program for homeowners, where they can apply to get up to 4 free trees. The City is actually cultivating these trees.

    Does Seattle need to step up on City-owned property and streets? HELL YES. But let’s just stop the bullshit that protecting trees stops development.

    1. Nurseries do not plant trees and water them. Most of the cost here is for Parks or SDOT to water the trees for 5 years to ensure that most can survive. Too often we see tree planted and the next year they are dead because they were not watered. And they don’t get replanted.

    2. Protecting trees _in this way_ does absolutely hurt development, and it also has the side effect of creating a disincentive to plant more trees. Every 12″ tree that needs to come out for development would add $2,833 to the cost of the project. If I have four of those trees in my back yard, while my neighbor has none, a developer would rationally offer my neighbor at least $10k more for their land than mine because they’ll be able to get their project done that much cheaper. So, now land owners with 10″ trees will be asking themselves if they can afford the $2,833 hit to their land value to let the tree grow to 12″, or if they should just cut it down before it gets that far to protect their property value.

      What does this get us anyway? Trees in back yards don’t do much of anything for the general public. The shade might be enjoyed by the resident of that home, but if they’d rather have a sunny yard or a backyard cottage or anything else in that space I have no problem with them removing that tree.

      Meanwhile trees in the planting strips create shade that we can all enjoy as we move about our city. If the goal is to increase publicly-usable shade, we’ll plant as many trees as possible in the public right of way. In many cases this might mean removing some street parking to make a wide enough space to plant a shade tree, and/or moving utility wires underground to let trees grow tall.

  3. I completely agree that the City should be planting more and larger trees in more places. Byzantine is the perfect word to desribe the new rules – arborists are concerned about them and not because they want to cut down trees but rather that the rules are hard to understand and that many of the people who work on private property are not native English speakers. Carrots would be great instead .. a prime example is a LIHI project in the Central Area where a number of large fir trees were cut down so the neighboring church could keep it all of its parking lot which is really used just one day a week. The neighborhood tried to save the trees, while also supporting the project and the City was of no help. Could the code be adjusted to help property owners and incentivize design that adds density and also saves existing trees? Instead there is this strange law, that penalizes and does not reward. All over the southern parts of the city large trees have been removed for density and the twig like replacements have been poorly tended often not making it through just one hot summer. Seems there are other solutions beside this law but that would require some creativity and well, seems that is in short supply.

  4. So if the city forces you to keep a tree and it falls on your house it is lawsuit time? Talk about tertible timing for this overreach. We have the fools in Olympia removing frequent bus service housing for no reason, so what little space is left to develop will have these regulations to deal with. Beginning to look like a housing affordability crisis is what they want to make worse but appear to be trying to address. This combo (no apartments on arterials and stricter tree regs) will make this problem so much worse. Almost like they want this to happen……

    Brent Silver

    Seattle Urbanism Alliance

  5. Carrot or stick? Always the stick. One way I thought might help this would be property tax reduction for homes over the goal tree canopy average and increased on those below it. If these trees really are a public benefit on private property shouldn’t those doing more than their fair share be rewarded? The increased revenue from the parcels below the average could plant trees in public places.

    Sadly the Council continues on its clueless quest. Morons. But in the end density will be thwarted by the tree lovers of convenience. In the way of their view? Off with their heads!! Need to make room for affordable housing? Tree hugging and weeping. Hypocrites.

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