Pedersen Fails to Stifle Housing Development in the Guise of “Tree Protection”

By Erica C. Barnett

City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who’s leaving next year after a single term, had hoped to stuff a new tree-protection ordinance with amendments that would prohibit new development in many historically exclusive single-family areas.

Instead, Pedersen’s colleagues rejected nearly every one of his proposed amendments, leaving Pedersen—whose Zoom background includes a yard sign promoting the Seattle advocacy group TREEPAC—to vote against a bill that would have represented his primary legacy on the council.

The bill that passed out of committee, without Pedersen’s amendments, still creates a Byzantine maze of new regulations aimed at preventing tree removal on private property.

But Pedersen’s proposals would have gone much further—dramatically increasing the cost to remove trees, restricting where new trees could be planted, and shrinking the area where a property owner could build new housing through a series of overlapping protections that would require a PhD. in math to decipher. Pedersen said he based his amendments on a letter from the Urban Forestry Commission.

In all, Pedersen proposed 17 amendments that would have imposed new restrictions on development or made it more expensive to build. Every one of his substantive amendments failed—a limp denouement to the Northeast Seattle council member’s years-long efforts to prevent new housing in the guise of tree protection.

Some, like an amendment to change the way the maximum developable area on a piece of property is calculated, would have made it harder to build anything other than a single-family house in neighborhoods where, thanks to a groundbreaking density bill the state legislature passed this year, it’s now possible to build up to four units per property. Others, like an amendment to increase the amount property owners must pay to remove trees, were designed to maximize the financial pain of removing trees for development. A third group of amendments would have created new reporting requirements and enlarged the bureaucracy charged with enforcing the new tree laws.

All of Pedersen’s amendments failed—a limp denouement to the Northeast Seattle council member’s years-long efforts to prevent new housing in the guise of tree protection.

One of the primary new rules in the underlying tree protection bill is a change allowing development on up to 85 percent of residential lots, with exceptions that would make the development area smaller or larger in some cases. Pedersen wanted to change that baseline, in zones where multifamily housing is allowed, to a variable rate based on floor-area ratio—a measure of the total square footage inside a building, including buildings with multiple floors—which could have the impact of reducing the size of new housing developments or making them infeasible to build.

“This almost feels like a proxy for anti-density more than it is about protecting trees,” land use chair Dan Strauss, who sponsored the underlying tree legislation, said before the vote.

Councilmember Sara Nelson—a frequent Pedersen ally—also voted against several Pedersen amendments, citing the need to encourage new housing in lower-density zones. Mid-rise areas, where small apartment buildings and townhouses are allowed, are “where some of the most affordable pathways to homeownership, through townhomes, is happening,” Nelson said, “and so that’s a pretty important zone to just single out [for new restrictions].”

The committee also voted down a Pedersen amendment that would change the “tree protection area,” where construction is prohibited, from a consistent area defined by a tree’s “drip line” to a complicated, variable formula based on a tree’s diameter, age, root spread, soil health, tree health, and species. At its upper limit, Pedersen’s proposal could have prohibited construction within hundreds of feet of a tree in every direction.

Pedersen also attempted, unsuccessfully, to change the standard for replacing trees removed for development to an “inch for inch” requirement, meaning that if a person removed a 24-inch tree, for example, they would have to plant six four-inch trees somewhere else.

The term echoes anti-development demands for “one-for-one replacement” of dilapidated housing as well as the concept of “concurrency”—the idea that cities should not allow new development until they expand the capacity of its streets, transit systems, sewers, and other amenities to accommodate new residents. The biggest difference between “inch for inch” and “one for one,” of course, is that trees grow.

The legislation still places the burden of tree preservation and replacement on individual property owners, despite the fact that almost half the tree loss in Seattle has occurred in city-owned parks and rights-of-way.

Pedersen also failed to pass an amendment that would require property owners to plant new trees only in areas of the city with low tree canopies. The idea sounds equitable—historically, the city failed to plant trees in neighborhoods where more people of color live, and has an obligation to right that wrong—but, in practice, it would do little to improve tree canopy in underserved areas. And it would create logistical and ethical questions—requiring homeowners building a backyard apartment in North Seattle, for example, to physically take trees to South Seattle and plant them in front of other people’s homes.

A final Pedersen amendment, which would increase the fee to remove midsize trees from $2,833 (in the underlying legislation) to a variable rate ranging from $4,000 to $7,425, didn’t get a vote. (Making the case, Pedersen claimed developers would choose to take lower profits rather than passing the cost of tree replacement fees on to renters or homebuyers.) Instead, the council adopted an amendment from Strauss increasing the fee to remove some protected tree species while keeping the basic fee at $2,833.

The full council will vote on the entire tree protection later this month.

As we’ve noted, the legislation still places the burden of tree preservation and replacement on individual property owners, despite the fact that almost half the tree loss in Seattle has occurred in city-owned parks and rights-of-way. Forcing private property owners to plant or preserve trees on their lawns won’t save Seattle’s tree canopy, but it will prevent some development and drive up the cost of housing as developers pass along their increased costs. The good news is that the council majority seems to have prevented Pedersen, an anti-density crusader to the end, from using tree protections to place a stranglehold on new housing in every corner of the city.

11 thoughts on “Pedersen Fails to Stifle Housing Development in the Guise of “Tree Protection””

  1. Shame on Publicola for publishing such biased, ill-informed, accusatory garbage. Obviously this matter needs further study and consideration. And yes, amendments.
    Pederson may have pushed for the extreme. His colleagues voted all down, but they were not fully informed and heavy input from the Master Builders created the proposed ordinance. Do you want Seattle’s future bought by the developers? I think not.
    Development and Tree Protection can CO-EXIST. Good design can lead the way to achieve both. And if trees are removed, they should be limited to absolutely necessary, and then replaced inch for inch. Makes perfect sense.
    Developers are citizens of Seattle and this planet too. They should be required to follow and respect the need for affordable housing, tree canopy increase, overall health, heat control as weather gets hotter and climate change. Incentives for doing so may make sense.
    But at all costs, we must protect our trees. They make the Seattle we love, and what a shame to prefer concrete.
    Is Erica C. Barnett even from this state? Does she know the people that live here? If she has some issue with trees, I suggest she move elsewhere.

  2. Deforesting Seattle and creating one big urban heat island won’t be good for human health. Losing big trees also causes landslides and flooding like South Park had last fall. People in frontline communities bear the brunt of poor land use planning. Pedersen’s amendments would have required building around trees like other cities do, so we could grow housing and urban forest at the same time. The amendments were based on what Portland already does so weren’t novel. All people regardless of income deserve to have trees where they live, not just in parks. The public health impacts of this ordinance were not sufficiently considered.

  3. I really don’t want to read one more word from Erica about “heat islands” or “tree cover” until she addresses her extreme bias here.

  4. Just needed to point out that it is not really accurate to state, “the legislation still places the burden of tree preservation and replacement on individual property owners,…” and leave it at that. Back in the 1990s the poor condition of Seattle’s park trees was causing alarm, and so in 2004 Green Seattle Partnership was formed for the express purpose of planting park trees and restoring our natural areas. A lot of work has been done, but these trees are still young and do not create the replacement canopy cover we need. https: //

  5. A lot of bias shown in this article and by this website. I read several articles from Publicola during the HALA upzones decrying the heat islands in low income neighborhoods and linking them to racist practices. But now it seems you advocate for more heat islands all over the city. What gives? Is this just about juicy headlines? Are you getting paid by developers ? Because I notice there’s nary a word about all the things they do to keep home prices artificially high.

  6. I’m sorry none of this passed; I support all of it. And I’m really disappointed that Pedersen isn’t running for re-election. Our city is being destroyed by development–all except for the wealthy areas that have the protection of covenants or other instrumentalities that prevent the wholesale building of garbage towers everywhere else. Where’s the equity in that? As usual, the wealthy skate, the middles get destroyed in one or another, or sometimes, many, ways, and the low income get far less than was promised. Why we don’t see this and insist on another model is beyond me.

    Thanks to the pandemic and an injury that has kept me from driving for months, I only recently have been getting around a bit more to see the horrors sprouting up everywhere-no longer restricted to their “urban villages.” The thing is, what’s being built is market rate. Not much being built for those earning under or just over @ $20K. We apparently will all be taxed to build some ghettoes for them. Building housing for them in current SF neighborhoods will continue to be price prohibitive for those we say we want to house. That building multi-family dwellings, or 4 or 6 units on what is presently an SF lot will not make those units affordable to those that are currently being priced out-that argument is a Trojan horse for giving away our city to the developers.

    And trees? If only a tree ordinance or ordinances could stop the destruction of our trees! But as usual, the powers that be are speaking out of both sides of their mouths: 1: Follow the science, which would support keeping the trees we have and planting many many more, versus 2: we’ll replant trees somewhere else at some unknown date, and we’ll replant sapplings that will take a decade or more to begin providing what the removed trees were already providing, and they’ll do that in some area where they won’t benefit those who live in under-planted areas, or WAIT! Maybe that’s what’s going to happen: They’ll build the tenements and plant the trees somewhere outside anywhere anyone wants to live and call it success.

    I hate what’s happening to our city!

    1. But Pedersen’s proposed amendments were WAY too restrictive and could make it more difficult for you to cut down a tree that you might not want on your own property. This is a blatant violation of people’s property rights. I’m glad he’s not running for re-election. He’s a total NIMBY.

      Also, you don’t seem to understand the laws of supply and demand. Housing is not exempted from these. It is absolutely ridiculous and completely divorced from reality to assert that building more housing won’t do anything to reduce home prices. Yes, the stuff being built is market rate, but it will bring down the price of older houses to make them more affordable to those making less money (though I don’t disagree that we need more affordable housing, by which I mean subsidized housing for low-income people).

      Also, if more denser housing is built in the city, that means less demand for housing in the suburbs and on the edge of the city, meaning there won’t be forests full of trees being cut down to make room for more sprawl. Forests being cut down is what you get if you make tree restrictions in the city so restrictive that nobody can build more denser housing. I think it is an acceptable tradeoff to make, for maybe one or two trees to be cut down to prevent hundreds from being cut down for more sprawl.

      And, let’s not forget that suburban sprawl is more environmentally unfriendly in other ways. For example, people will have to drive further and pollute our planet more in order to get to work and less likely to take public transit, walk, or bike.

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