Category: Environment

A Pyrrhic Victory for Tree Canopy in Wedgwood

Source: Museum of History & Industry, Seattle (MOHAI), via Historylink

by Josh Feit

In a headline-making standoff this summer, residents of the Wedgwood neighborhood were able to thwart a developer who planned to replace a single family home with two three-unit buildings. Under heat from the community, the developer relented and turned one of the planned three-townhouse buildings into a single unit instead, shrinking the number of housing units by a third.

The effort, waged by Wedgwood tree canopy advocates who objected to the developers’ plans to cut down a cedar tree, got an assist from the Snoqualmie Tribe, which weighed in with a letter to the city arguing that the tree was a historic culturally modified tree.

I’m glad the Snoqualmie Tribe got involved in great tree debate. Not because their plea to spare the tree—which Wedgwood activists named Luma—may have helped save the massive cedar, but because it opens the discussion to looking back at what Wedgwood was like a century or more ago. And this is where my disagreement with canopy ideologues starts.

According to HistoryLink, Wedgwood used to be a sylvan paradise of “dense forest” crisscrossed with trails. After the forest was clear-cut, white newcomers transformed the area into farmland and then, in 1941, into a new whites-only neighborhood called Wedgwood. Today, Wedgwood is made up mostly of single-family houses with lawns and zoned “neighborhood residential”—part of the 75 percent of Seattle’s developable land where apartments are banned.

Now that all those trees have been replaced with single-family housing, anti-development voices, such as city council member Alex Pedersen—who tried and failed to drastically expand a new tree protection ordinance by using tree protection as an unsubtle proxy for anti-development rules— present themselves as righteous tree advocates.

I know it’s a gotcha to point out that single-family development is the original anathema of tree cover, but it’s a meaningful gotcha. It reveals the hypocrisy at the core of the NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) that still governs our city today: Now that I’ve got mine, I’m not going to let anyone else have theirs.



Seattle Daily Times, July 6, 1941

The added irony, and frustration, is that dense development—that is, more units on individual lots, as opposed to one single-family house per lot—ultimately supports more trees in more spaces. For example, if everyone living in Capitol Hill, one of the densest zones in the city (with more than twice as much density—20,000 people per square mile—than Wedgwood) stretched out into single-family living, there would be little room for green spaces like Volunteer Park and the Arboretum that serve the neighborhood. Indeed, Council District 3—with Capitol Hill at is core—has the second highest canopy cover in the city, at 32 percent; the city’s goal is 30 percent citywide.

I live on Capitol Hill. Specifically, I live in a Neighborhood Commercial-55 zone (one of the city’s denser designations, where five-story mixed-use buildings are allowed) and my immediate neighborhood is an emerald wonderland.

Sure, as the 2021 City of Seattle Tree Canopy Assessment Final Report found, “neighborhood residential” (formerly “single-family”) zones had more tree cover (34 percent on average) than multifamily areas (23 percent). But this highlights yet another hypocritical cornerstone of the NIMBY reality. Their roomy neighborhoods leave space for more greenery and tree growth because they rely on multifamily zones to provide an offset. Multifamily zones are packed tight as part of a cohesive zoning plan to work in tandem with the adjacent commercial hubs and transit-friendly arterials. Adding more of these dynamic, walkable housing and commercial hubs to our city’s zoning map would preserve more trees in the long run because it accommodates sustainable growth as opposed to sprawling growth.

In other words, the only reason less dense areas have more canopy is because they’ve confined the kind of development that makes the city workable to a paltry portion of the city as a whole. If our city wasn’t growing and housing wasn’t scarce, this status quo might be sustainable. But as Seattle rapidly approaches a population of 800,000, we need to make more room for more housing adjacent to stores, transit, restaurants, arts, and services. Given that building densely ends up preserving more space for trees, this city needs more multi-family zones, not fewer, if it wants to meet its 30 percent canopy goal.

Using tree canopy as a cover story to prohibit additional density actually threatens existing canopy because growing outward obliterates more trees than it saves. In this context, by saving one tree, but stalling more housing, the tree activists scored little more than a Pyrrhic victory in Wedgwood.

Certainly, two wrongs—knocking down more trees in Wedgwood on top of what we clear-cut a century ago—don’t make a right. But enacting a hardline tree protection ordinance, which now seems to be the conventional takeaway from the Wedgwood tree saga, is also a wrong, and a graver one. Instituting an inflexible prohibition against much-needed housing development is simply a way for people in single-family neighborhoods to reject new residents.

This example—downsizing from six planned units to four—might not seem like a major loss of housing, but if neighborhoods across the city are able to decrease housing developments by a third every time a developer tries to build in-fill multifamily housing, the losses will add up fast.  Conversely, allowing greater housing flexibility in the areas where more new housing is needed—the core idea of YIMBYism (Yes In My Backyard)—would serve the greater good. It would also, ultimately, save more trees.

Midyear Budget Proposal Adds Funding for Streetcar Study, Police Overtime—and $19 Million for Unanticipated Lawsuit Payouts

By Erica C. Barnett

The city council got a first look at a proposed mid-year budget package that would fund a graffiti cleanup team that Harrell recently rolled out as part of his Downtown Activation Plan; add funding to revive the delayed downtown streetcar connector; increase SPD overtime spending to pay for downtown emphasis patrols, expanded online crime reports, and public disclosure officers; and put an additional $19 million into a fund that pays out for lawsuits and claims against the city, many of them the result of alleged police misconduct.

Every year, the city council has to adjust the budget to reflect new priorities, as well as what the city has actually spent so far that year, in a midyear supplemental budget that’s often hundreds of pages long.

The council denied Harrell’s request to nearly double what the city spends on graffiti removal last year, increasing annual graffiti cleanup spending to almost $4 million. According to council staff, Harrell’s office reversed their decision by using unspent funds from Seattle Public Utilities public hygiene budget, including pump-outs for trailers that provide showers for unsheltered people, to fully the graffiti cleanup crews. Harrell announced the new spending earlier this month as part of his Downtown Activation Plan. Because the city has already executed the contracts, a council staffer explained Wednesday, the council now has little choice but to fund the expanded graffiti program.

To fund other Downtown Activation Plan programs, a central staff memo notes, Harrell has proposed using the JumpStart fund, which includes funding earmarked for small businesses. Ironically, it was the Downtown Seattle Association, along with the Seattle Metro Chamber and other business groups, that proposed temporarily suspending the JumpStart tax—which only applies to the city’s largest businesses—earlier this year.

The memo outlines all the other proposed midyear budget adjustments, which also include $1 million “a delivery assessment of the Center City Cultural Connector”—as the proposed downtown streetcar was recently rebranded—”to determine if the design needs to be updated to reflect the intent of the project.”

“My original idea was, just lift the proviso and let them spend the salary savings on emergent needs,” Councilmember Sara Nelson said Wednesday, adding that the funding limitation “prohibit[s] the uses of salary savings on on expenses that are really important right now for the for Seattle Police Department.”

The council will also have to approve a $19 million increase to the city’s judgment and claims fund—including $14 million from the city’s planning reserves fund and $5 million from insurance—to pay for “higher than anticipated expenses” from lawsuits against the city. A spokesperson for the city’s budget office told PubliCola the city “cannot accurately predict how much money will be spent if the request is approved,” and said the city may not end up using all the money.

Still, the allocation represents a significant increase to the fund, which the city already expanded by $11 million in the 2023 budget last year, when it increased the fund from $30 million to $41 million “to pay for extraordinary settlements against the City.” Last year, lawsuits against the police department accounted for almost half of the $36 million the city spent on settlements, defense attorneys, and other litigation-related expenses, according to a report released in April.

The midyear budget also releases some funding to SPD to pay for improvements to the department’s online reporting system and unbudgeted overtime expenses the department has already made, along with position authority for four new public disclosure officers. Currently, SPD has to get council approval to spend funding allocated to vacant positions, including sworn officer positions the department is unable to fill, on unrelated purposes.

Although the spending SPD is requesting is fairly limited—about $815,000—budget chair Teresa Mosqueda noted that whenever the city creates new SPD positions—on top of the hundreds of vacant positions that are included in the budget every year—”it compounds our increased costs year over year,” because the new positions become an additional SPD expense in future budget years.

“If there [are] positions that are vacant, that the department intends to hold vacant, that are no longer needed or are not part of the near term planning, it is okay to abrogate positions in order to put funding into other priorities,” Mosqueda said.

Councilmember Sara Nelson, who argued vehemently against restrictions on SPD’s spending authority last year, said another way to solve the annual funding problem would be to just allow SPD to spend salary savings on whatever they want. “My original idea was, just lift the proviso and let them spend the salary savings on emergent needs,” Nelson said Wednesday, adding that the funding limitation “prohibit[s] the uses of salary savings on on expenses that are really important right now for the for Seattle Police Department.” (In fact, it just requires the council to approve those expenses.)

Immediately after suggesting the council has made it too hard for the department to spend salary savings however it wants, Nelson spent 15 minutes questioning a $50,000 expenditure on a “living hotel” pilot that would create sustainable development standards for new hotels. Currently, the city has no way of endorsing or verifying that a hotel that calls itself “green” is actually adhering to green standards such as limiting water usage.

Suggesting that Mosqueda, who proposed the expenditure, was dropping the idea on the council out of the blue, Nelson said, “You make it sound like there’s a lot of talk going on between departments, but I’m the vice chair of the sustainability and renters rights committee, I’m on land use, I’m the chair of City Light, and  the first time I’ve heard about this policy is through some of those form emails coming in.”

“I appreciate that you might know a lot about it,” Nelson continued. “Again, talking about money, that transparency in budgeting ,and making sure that when we allocate money, it’s actually getting spent. So is it premature to be funding this work, given those factors?”

No one took the bait on the glaring contradiction between supporting a blank check for police and scrutinizing a tiny expense for the environment, but Councilmember Lisa Herbold did chime in on behalf of Mosqueda’s add, noting that “it’s really important to guard against greenwashing” by companies operating in the city.

As the central staff memo notes, Harrell’s Downtown Activation Plan includes a special land use change for a proposed hotel in Belltown that will not have to adhere to any green standards, and would extend master use permits for existing downtown hotels, prolonging their exemptions from current environmental rules.

It’s Time for an Urban “Discover Pass”

By Josh Feit

Urban Seattle is an offset for the rest of King County.

People who choose suburban lifestyles may frown at Seattle’s density, but their preference for roomy yards, loping streets, and low density creates a disproportionate, negative impact on our region’s  infrastructure—utilities, energy grids, roads and highways—that’s only possible thanks to dense neighborhoods like downtown Seattle. And Capitol Hill. And Chinatown. And the Fremont, Ballard, and University District neighborhood cores.

When urban dwellers make transit-oriented, low-impact housing choices, the adjacent suburban areas such as sprawling Bellevue, isolated Bainbridge Island—and yes, Seattle neighborhoods like Laurelhurst—reap the environmental benefits. These suburbs and low-density neighborhoods would be irresponsibly unsustainable without the jumbles of urban Seattle that give our shared ecosystem a slight breather.

Apparently, our lawn-locked neighbors aren’t just passively benefitting from our green choices. They’re also dropping by a lot to take advantage of density’s perks. Judging by Seattle Department of Transportation parking data, the city’s densest neighborhoods are also the region’s most popular. Appropriately, due to this high demand, SDOT charges for parking in these neighborhoods.

Spots like Capitol Hill (where hourly parking costs $4.50 in the evenings) and the University District ($4.50 in the afternoons) are popular destinations because—thanks to the underlying zoning for mixed-use and dense housing—they have a concentration of businesses, services, restaurants, and exciting entertainment options. You can identify the same consistently popular destinations, by the way, from light rail data: Capitol Hill and the U District are among the system’s top four stations.

A better program, call it Sustainability Pricing, would remake congestion pricing by supporting affordable housing. 

Paying $4.50 an hour to park in the city hardly covers the full value suburban visitors get from visiting Seattle’s urban landscape. Just as the state puts a price on our beautiful parks with the Discover Pass (“more than just a parking pass, it’s your ticket to unlimited access to millions of state managed lands across Washington state”), Seattle should be compensated for maintaining and managing density.

To do that, Seattle could take inspiration from last month’s exciting news out of New York City, where the feds approved the nation’s first-ever congestion pricing program, allowing the city to charge drivers for entering midtown and lower Manhattan. A similar congestion pricing system has been on the books in London for two decadesfulfilling its goals  of decreasing greenhouse gases, increasing transit use, and reducing congestion. The Durkan administration briefly considered congestion pricing in Seattle, but predictably, they ended up doing nothing.

Three cheers to Manhattan for leading the way by bringing a necessary dose of environmental logic to the U.S.

Not only should Seattle follow suit by charging people to drive into our busiest neighborhoods—with exemptions for low-income drivers, including downtown service workers—we should go bolder than the Manhattan model. A better program—let’s call it Sustainability Pricing—would revamp congestion pricing in a few key ways.

First, as I just noted, Sustainability Pricing Zones would apply not just downtown, but in every dense Seattle urban hub.

Second, unlike in London and Manhattan, where the proceeds  go to transit, the money would instead fund affordable housing.

And finally: Those housing dollars should flow right back to the communities whose drivers are “bridge and tunneling” in.

Not only should the revenues go predominantly to fund  affordable housing, but they should go back to the drivers themselves in the form of subsidies for new, affordable housing in the neighborhoods where they live.

Here’s why: Many people are priced out of urban hubs. It’s the result of an intransigent resistance to zoning changes (more density) from both the suburbs and from single-family homeowners in cities themselves. Perversely, this anti-density pathology turns dense, transit-friendly zones into exclusive, expensive real estate. Sharing the density region-wide (and citywide) is a smart way to address a lot of problems caused by cordoning density into a tiny slice of Seattle, including sky-high city rents and suburban car dependency.

So, let’s send the Sustainability Pricing dollars back to the drivers themselves. Or more precisely, let’s channel the money back in the form of subsidies for new, affordable apartment buildings in their neighborhoods. In the long term, this would help create region-wide density, easing the environmental burden on today’s disproportionately dense urban hubs. If certain communities don’t want to upzone to allow multifamily housing—hello, Upper Queen Anne—the dollars could revert back to Seattle transit funding.

I realize downtown Seattle is struggling right now, and it seems counterintuitive to charge people to visit (at least by car). But an urban version of the Discover Pass isn’t only about downtown. As I’ve pointed out many times: The pandemic changed Seattle by igniting urban hubs throughout the city.  The now-popular, citywide outdoor seating program is one example of how our city is sharing urbanism. By making all our dense neighborhoods a source for supporting even more density, we will be both acknowledging that the old downtown model has changed, and that Seattle can help its neighbors do the right thing by embracing that change.

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.

New State Housing Laws Could Mean Big Changes for Seattle

Under the new law, the area within a quarter mile of frequent transit, like light rail, can have up to six units per residential lot. Photo by Brett V, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ryan Packer

House Bill 1110, which allows new multifamily housing near transit stops, will impact residential neighborhoods in cities of all sizes across Washington state.

But some of the biggest changes will be in Seattle. The legislation, which passed last week, ties density to public transit infrastructure, allowing significantly more density—up to six units per lot—in areas near frequent transit stops.

The bill requires larger cities, including Seattle, to allow four residential units on every lot, and to allow six units on lots within a quarter-mile walking distance of bus rapid transit, light rail, and streetcar stops.

That means that in significant segments of Queen Anne, Madrona, Wallingford, and Mount Baker, where property owners are currently limited to building two accessory dwelling units—like a basement apartment and a backyard cottage—courtyard apartments, six-unit apartment buildings, and townhouses will now be legal.

Seattle’s lobbyists quietly worked to support bills like HB 1110 throughout the session, while trying to make sure they wouldn’t interfere with the city’s own density laws, such as Mandatory Housing Affordability; MHA requires developers to provide affordable housing or contribute to an affordable housing fee when building in the cities’ designated “urban villages.”

“It’s still Seattle and there’s still a process that we still have to go through, but I do think by having these frameworks in place now, it’s going to be able to help accelerate some of the development that we need, and have needed for a long time.”—Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34)

“I think it’s going to have a huge impact on Seattle,” Senator Joe Nguyen (D-34), whose district includes Pioneer Square, West Seattle, and Burien, said.

“Obviously, I don’t think it will be perfect, because it’s still Seattle and there’s still a process that we still have to go through, but I do think by having these frameworks in place now, it’s going to be able to help accelerate some of the development that we need, and have needed for a long time,” he said.

The legislature also made some significant changes to how the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) affects individual housing projects. Currently, as part of the official SEPA review process, anyone can appeal a proposed housing project over its potential impacts, such as loss of views, increased noise, or traffic. These delays can add months or years to project timelines, even if they’re ultimately dismissed. A group called Save Madison Valley, for example, appealed a proposed mixed housing and retail development featuring a PCC in both 2018 and 2020, delaying the project.

Senate Bill 5412, sponsored by Senator Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline), will limit those appeals. Under the adopted bill, if a proposed housing project complies with a city’s existing comprehensive plan, it will be categorically exempt from SEPA review, eliminating the lengthy appeal process that’s now common for developments that are controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with local environmental law.

The final version of the bill includes a provision that allows projects in Seattle to take advantage of it before other cities in Washington.

“A lot of the costs that are associated with delay and with litigation get passed on in the high cost of housing,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents downtown, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, said. “Ultimately as consumers we pay for all the lawyers that interject into these processes along the way.”

“We can legalize increased density, but it’s not going to come very quickly if you keep in place a lot of the tactics and methods that people use to slow it down or to whittle the ambition of the projects down,” he said.

“The debate [now] really is about how we can be thinking about new nodes of development, or new corridors where denser development will happen. How are we thinking about integrating things like corner stores, or other basic or essential services, into those neighborhoods?”—Futurewise Executive Director Alex Brennan

Lewis says intense environmental review of dense housing in the middle of cities is counterproductive and notes that dense housing provides an environmental benefit in its own right. “In the aggregate, it has a colossal environmental benefit. If we are unable to build a significant amount of new housing units in the City of Seattle, in an efficient amount of time, we’re just going to have compounding challenges relating to climate.”

A spokesman for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections said it was too early to say how the new batch of housing legislation would impact SDCI’s work.

The collective impact of changes to statewide zoning will impact Seattle’s comprehensive plan update, due in 2024, as city planners grapple with how to accommodate at least 112,000 new units of housing—Seattle’s share of King County’s growth target—over the next two decades. The zoning provisions in HB 1110 automatically take effect six months after that update to the comprehensive plan.

Alex Brennan, the director of Futurewise, a statewide smart growth advocacy group, says allowing four housing units per lot increases Seattle’s options for future growth. “We don’t have to fight for that baseline anymore,” he said. “So, the debate really is about how we can be thinking about new nodes of development, or new corridors where denser development will happen. How are we thinking about integrating things like corner stores, or other basic or essential services, into those neighborhoods?”

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.

Growth Is Coming. The Legislature Needs to Plan for It.

David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Brennan

When I was growing up here in the 1980s, Seattle was one of the most affordable cities in the country. My parents rented a house for $100 a month, allowing them to save enough for a down payment before I was born. Since then, the city’s unique combination of affordability, natural beauty, and economic dynamism has attracted people from all over the world to our region, further enriching our cultural diversity, civic engagement, and economy.

Unfortunately, housing has not kept up with growth—especially where we need it most. Now Seattle’s housing is some of the most expensive in the world. Many of my childhood friends have been priced out and many beloved newer friends are struggling to stay. These problems extend across the state.

Since the 1950s, popular culture has sold us a vision of prosperity where you get a big house with a big yard and drive everywhere. Suburban property owners, developers, and other powerful interests rigged a land use system that stripped away other options. This growth pattern has damaged critical wildlife habitat and prime farmland, strained infrastructure, isolated households, and priced out whole communities. We were sold a bad bill of goods.

Standing in the way are a handful of small but powerful suburban cities, home to some of the wealthiest people in the world. Many welcoming people live in these places, but the organized voices representing them in Olympia are saying no—no to taking their share of growth, no to affordable housing options, no to people who do not have cars or cannot drive, and no to sharing their parks and schools.

This old model for growth is broken and cannot meet our needs. We need a new model that offers housing for Washingtonians at every income level—especially near jobs, transit, and essential goods and services. That is why this year, a broad, unlikely coalition of business and labor, environmentalists and developers, affordable housing providers and social justice advocates have come together to support new housing options in addition to new ways to design and invest in our communities. Our success moving past the House-of-origin cutoff shows that, after years of advocacy and coalition building, we finally have an opportunity to make this new vision a reality. Right now, legislators have three important bills before them:

HB 1110 would allow duplexes in most single family neighborhoods across the state, and triplexes, fourplexes, and some sixplexes in larger cities. These more diverse housing types, often termed “missing middle” because they fill in the gap between single-family homes and larger apartment buildings, are essential for providing lower cost options in all our neighborhoods.

SB 5466 would set minimum densities near light rail stations and other high-capacity transit. We need to let more people live near the transit that can provide access to major job centers and essential goods and services without getting stuck in traffic. This legislation, which  also provides incentives and funding for affordability and requires that cities develop anti-displacement plans for high displacement neighborhoods that are impacted.

HB 1181 incorporates climate change into the State Growth Management Act, the framework for how our state, cities, and counties plan for growth. Local governments will be directed to implement local policies and investments that will create more compact, walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods that reduce the need to drive.

These three policies are also part of a broader package of housing policies including the Covenant Homeownership Act, which addresses past racial discrimination in mortgage lending and makes record investments in the state housing trust fund. Together, this broader package will move Washington toward a more sustainable and inclusive future.

Standing in the way are a handful of small but powerful suburban cities, home to some of the wealthiest people in the world. Many welcoming people live in these places, but the organized voices representing them in Olympia are saying no—no to taking their share of growth, no to affordable housing options, no to people who do not have cars or cannot drive, and no to sharing their parks and schools.

But we can make a different choice. We can ensure that working class communities from all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds have a place in our state. Our housing options, just like our communities, should be plentiful and diverse with everything you need—fresh groceries, the doctor’s office, your favorite restaurant, parks and libraries—available within easy reach of your home. Whether you want to live in a big city or a small town, we all deserve an affordable home in a neighborhood built for people and communities.

I feel lucky to live in the city where I grew up. I want other long-time residents to be able to stay and thrive in their communities and I want to welcome new people to come here and enjoy what makes Washington such a great state. We have the tools. Now it is our legislators’ turn to fulfill this promise and pass these important bills this session.

Alex Brennan is the Executive Director of Futurewise. Born and raised in Seattle, he now resides in Capitol Hill and works across the state. Futurewise is leading campaigns to pass HB 1181, HB 1110, and SB 5466.


Ruling: No Need to Review New Tree Regulations’ Impact on New Housing

Trees! Better than housing?

By Erica C. Barnett

On Thursday, the Seattle Hearing Examiner ruled against the Master Builders of Seattle/King County in a case involving a proposed new citywide tree ordinance, concluding that the city does not have to undertake any additional review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to move forward with the new law.

The proposed new law, supported by TreePAC and City Councilmembers Dan Strauss and Alex Pedersen, would lower the size threshold for “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.

MBAKS, which represents small-scale multifamily developers, argued that the new rules will discourage density in Seattle, “protecting” single-family neighborhoods in leafy parts of Seattle where people of color were historically barred from living, while doing nothing to improve tree coverage in sparsely canopied, more diverse parts of the city. They argued that the city needs to do more environmental analysis to consider the potential negative effects the ordinance would have on housing development and density.

In response to the ruling, MBAKS Seattle Government Affairs Manager Aliesha Ruiz said, “Although MBAKS is disappointed in the decision of the hearing examiner, we look forward to working with our housing partners and City Council to create legislation that supports both trees and housing.”

In his ruling, Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil said the developers didn’t clear the very high bar for requiring additional environmental review, essentially by failing to prove a negative: “Appellants’ arguments that the Proposal will increase the costs of development, and will have negative impacts on the City housing supply were based on speculation, not any actual quantitative analysis that was introduced into evidence, Vancil wrote.

“Appellants’ expressed concern that development will be more expensive, uncertain, and problematic on some unidentified number of lots is not enough to demonstrate that the Proposal will likely have significant adverse impacts to future housing in the City.”

Vancil also ruled that the tree ordinance, which defines an “exceptional” tree (the most protected category) as any tree more than two feet in diameter, is consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides development policy in the city and will be overhauled in 2024. (That process is just getting underway). In their appeal, the developers argued that in addition to doing more environmental analysis, the city should consider requiring developers to add street trees whenever they build new detached single-family houses, which do nothing to achieve the comprehensive plan’s density goals.

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.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Strauss, who represents Northwest Seattle, said, “Seattle is called ‘the Emerald City’ for a reason, and we need to do better at preserving our cherished urban forestry. We know trees add value to existing homes and development and many parts of our city need more tree canopy. I am excited to finally be able to create stronger tree protections here in the Emerald City.”


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.

Olympia Wrapup: Democratic Majority Falls Short on Core Democratic Agenda

Despite Democratic control in both houses, Washington state’s tax code remains deeply inequitable.

By Leo Brine

Last Thursday marked the end of the 2022 legislative session. Lawmakers only had 60 days to pass legislation, write and pass two supplemental budgets, and pass a transportation spending package. At the outset of the session, Democrats, who have a 57-seat majority in the house and a 29-seat majority in the senate, said they wanted to pass bills to help with housing affordability, homelessness, environmental sustainability, and the economy.

When it comes to housing, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) told PubliCola, “it was not a great year in terms of policy.” Macri pointed out that Democrats killed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) bill to allow denser housing statewide (HB 1782) and Rep. Sharon Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bill (HB 1660), both of which could have helped the state increase its housing stock. Bateman’s bill would have required all Washington cities to include denser housing options, like fourplexes and courtyard apartments, in neighborhoods zoned for single-family housing, while Shewmake’s would have permitted mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages in all types of residential neighborhoods.

When it comes to housing, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) said “it was not a great year in terms of policy.”

The legislature also killed Rep. Strom Peterson’s (D-21, Lynnwood) tenant protections bill (HB 1904), failing to vote on it by the first legislative deadline.  Michele Thomas from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said it was “one of the biggest losses of the session,” adding, “Democrats in the House shouldn’t have been afraid to vote on that bill.” The bill would have required landlords to give tenants six months’ notice before increasing rent; capped fees for late rent payments at $75; and provided tenants who could not afford a rent increase assistance moving somewhere they could afford. Thomas said the bill was tame and didn’t propose any kind of rent control, typically a third rail for legislators.

Democrats did manage to pass some homelessness bills that will provide temporary help to people living on the streets. The house and senate passed Rep. Frank Chopp’s (D-43, Seattle) bill that attempts to connect people under the state’s Apple Health (Medicaid) program with permanent supportive housing (HB 1866). Although the bill initially passed without funding, Democrats secured $60 million for the program in the capital budget. Macri saw the provision as a necessary upgrade. “Being on the budget team, I tried to focus on making sure we had strong investments because we didn’t have the strong policy I wanted to see pass,” she said.

To respond to the ongoing climate crisis, which is only getting worse, Democrats used their transportation package to try and reduce the state’s overall emissions by investing in electrified ferries, expanded transit services and better bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Climate Solutions Washington Director Kelly Hall said she was pleased with the investments Democrats made with the transportation package and hopes they will allocate more of the funding from the transportation package toward electrifying heavy-duty machinery, like long-haul trucks and construction vehicles, between now and the 2023 legislative session.

While Hall supports the transportation package, she said the legislature failed to pass bills that would reduce emissions from the state’s gas-heated buildings and from other common polluters people don’t often think of. Hall pointed out Rep. Macri’s bill (HB 1918) would have exempted the purchase of energy efficient lawn equipment from the state’s sales tax and encouraged more people to ditch their gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers for zero-emission models. Gas-powered lawn tools “emit a lot of toxic air pollution right in our communities,” Hall said. Continue reading “Olympia Wrapup: Democratic Majority Falls Short on Core Democratic Agenda”