False Claim that New Rules Would Permit Paving 85% of Residential Land Fails to Torpedo Tree Ordinance

By Erica C. Barnett

Earlier this week, the Seattle City Council finally adopted a set of restrictive new rules making it harder and more expensive for property owners to remove trees in their private lawns by more than tripling the number of regulated trees in the city.

The rules, which govern removal of any tree larger than six inches in diameter, go further than any previous ordinance, requiring land owners to replace any tree larger than 12 inches in diameter or pay a “payment in lieu” of replacement that ranges from $2,833 to tens of thousands of dollars. They are, in a word, Byzantine—and do nothing to address tree loss in the city’s own parks and open spaces, which are losing a greater proportion of their trees than privately owned property.

Which made it all the more remarkable when, at Tuesday’s meeting, “tree protection” advocates—in many cases, people who use “save the trees” as a proxy for anti-housing, anti-renter sentiments—argued that the council should scrap the whole policy in favor of a brand-new proposal floated by Councilemember Alex Pedersen that would vastly restrict development on nearly all the city’s low-density residential land. During public comment, speaker after speaker lined up to argue that the restrictive new tree ordinance would empower developers to “cover 85 percent of detached residential lots with structures,” as one commenter put it—a misinterpretation, encouraged by Pedersen, of regulations that do no such thing.

Pedersen did nothing to dispel his supporters’ misinterpretation of the law on Tuesday. Instead, he argued that the council “should vote [the legislation] down and start over”—presumably with his own proposal, rejected overwhelmingly earlier this month, that would have made it difficult to build anything other than single-family houses in areas where low-density multifamily housing, such as duplexes, was recently legalized.

The misconception stems from the fact that the new bill limits the amount of “developable” land on any residential lot to a maximum of 85 percent, once all tree protection requirements are factored in. In a maximal development scenario, in which tree protection areas only make up 15 percent of a lot, it would still be impossible to turn the rest of the lot into buildings. That’s because the city also has many other ordinances in place requiring walkways, landscaping, parking, green plantings, and other mandatory amenities. Altogether, these mandatory amenities restrict housing development to between 30 and 45 percent of any residential lot.

Pedersen did nothing to dispel his supporters’ inaccurate interpretation of the law on Tuesday. Instead, he argued that the council “should vote [the legislation] down and start over”—presumably with his own proposal, rejected overwhelmingly earlier this month, that would have made it difficult to build anything other than single-family houses in areas where low-density multifamily housing, such as duplexes, was recently legalized.

Quoting at length from the Seattle Times editorial board’s error-riddled argument against the legislation, which also repeated the inaccurate claim that “developers would be able to build on 85% of the lot in low-rise and other zones,” Pedersen said, “The process produced a pro-developer tree removal measure instead of one that actually preserves and grows trees. If this bill passes, there will be less shade and higher street level temperatures. That’s from the Seattle Times editorial board and I concur with those comments.”

The tree ordinance passed 6-1, with Pedersen voting “no”; Councilmembers Debora Juarez and Kshama Sawant were absent.

4 thoughts on “False Claim that New Rules Would Permit Paving 85% of Residential Land Fails to Torpedo Tree Ordinance”

  1. How does Seattle achieve both density and 30% equitable tree canopy cover? It will not possible to achieve as it is mathematically and logistically impossible to have any more than 18% to 20% citywide average canopy cover in Seattle without canopy cover within private residential areas. Mathematically impossible looking at the available streets, parks, and natural land area acres without canopy cover; and logistically impossible to remove private land canopy and replant in Parks which have have play-fields, etc.; and streets have roads, driveway access, underground services, and overhead utilities.
    The recently passed 85% and 100% tree removal provisions within the revamped Seattle Municipal Code 25.11 will result in almost 900 acres of multifamily are tree canopy to be removed even before an architect starts looking at design options. This provision almost guarantees than no more than one existing tree will survive a development clere-cut (provided that one tree is less than 25-feet drip-line diameter). It also guarantees Seattle will not me able to achieve its 2007 and 2020 updated Urban Forest Management Plan,
    City Planners in OPCD and SDCI have not identified how to redistribute the majority of the city’s canopy cover from private land to public land. Unless Seattle is accepting lower canopy cover results like Los Angeles and New York City (roughly 18% compared to Seattle’s current 28.1%), Seattle should follow the smart lead of Portland Oregon’s Title 50-1 that mandates minimum areas within private parcels for trees to be planted or retained. Trees AND density advocates know that the way to healthy and thriving communities is not to build a treeless city resulting from self-serving development, but instead to have every property owner contribute to climate resiliency. Trees AND density advocates know that the Master Builder’s 2022 appeal claiming roughly a $25,000 cost burden to design while retaining a tree is fiscally insignificant, has not resulted in higher cost units than original treeless sites, and was dismissed by the Seattle Hearing Examiner as hearsay.
    This article is railing on the perception that buildings are covering 85% of the lot. We all know that Neighborhood Residential structures may cover about 35% of the lot, and multifamily structures are based on Site Area to Floor Area rations that typically result in about 43% to 45% of the site being covered by structures. This article misses Pedersen’s point that why should a code allow a pre-design 85% clearing of trees and vegetation when current lowrise multifamily requirement would not require 85% of the lot. It is overkill. A typical multifamily townhouse development parcel uses about 45% for structures, 10% for walkways and trash, 15% for driveways and on-site parking, and 13% for exterior amenity areas. Since exterior amenity areas may also include existing or new trees… and adding about another 17% of the lot area that is flexible for design, a pre-design tree-clearing should have been no higher than 70-percent (not 85% and 100%). Portland Oregon requires than 20% of multifamily parcels have space for tree retention and replanting. Seattle requires 0% of multifamily parcels to be tree retention and planting areas… and the Green Factor also makes trees just one of many options such as mulch and ground-cover and permeable pavers. I would suggest Seattle has lost its competitive and creative edge, and this article promotes a non-comprehensive approach to growth and increased density.

  2. This does not need to be an either or scenario – trees or housing. Please do real research on this topic and don’t just assume ‘save the trees’ is code for “anti-housing, anti-rental” folks. I’m a renter; I live in a neighborhood with amazing old growth and mature tress – over 10 of which have been lost in a 5 block radius in my neighborhood in the last 6 months. They were not removed to build more housing or more affordable housing – it was to build large single family homes at an even higher price point than the home that was razed. The ‘replacement’ trees planted on these lots have a slim chance of surviving given their very small size and lack of adequate support to get them established. If they do survive, it will take another 30+ years to get them to the size of the trees lost. We’ve all seen the ‘rental housing’ going up around the city – built to the edges of lot lines with minimal greenscaping and most of that greenscaping dying off within the first 3 years. Use your platform to support both trees and housing. It can be done.

  3. Most new homes in my Ballard neighborhood do use up 70% of the lot or more. Just walk your neighborhood and look at the new homes replacing single family homes. Each has a large mcmansion with mother-in-law apt and a large backyard cottage. Many have no plants or blade of grass left when completed because they have to put in special drainage pits to remove runoff. Usually these are covered with gravel. If it’s happening now – why do you insist the treepac members were lying?

    It’s the developers that are lying. Lying about how much profit they can make from each build to hoodwink legislators about zoning issues. Has even one legislator looked at data on developers actual profits and compared to what they are stating in political meetings?

  4. It will be interesting to see if this ordinance stands up to a serious legal challenge. This may be bridge to far on limiting the rights of property owners.

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