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.