City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who’s leaving at the end of the year, may get one parting shot at developers after his proposal to advance “impact fees” on new housing (co-sponsored with another departing councilmember, Lisa Herbold) failed last week.
Just before budget deliberations began earlier this fall, Pedersen proposed legislation that would require a state archaeological agency to sign off on the removal of any tree larger than 12 inches in diameter—a class of trees that is already explicitly protected by the city’s new tree ordinance, which added new protections to about 48,000 trees, largely by making it more difficult to remove smaller trees. According to the legislation, the new regulations are necessary, in part, because the a new state law exempts “missing middle” housing, such as fourplexes, from state environmental review.
Pedersen’s proposal would require the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), the agency responsible for review tree removal applications, to notify the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) about every request to remove a “Tier 2” or “Tier 3” tree (those 12 inches in diameter or greater) and to “receive confirmation” from the department about “whether the tree is part of an archaeological site”—that is, whether it is a culturally modified tree. Put another way, the city would assume that every tree larger than a foot in diameter is culturally modified until proven otherwise.
“I’m not an attorney, I’m an archaeologist. But I don’t see how a local government can pass a law that binds a state agency.”—Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation director Allyson Brooks
Asked about the potential impact of the proposed new regulations, a spokesman for SDCI said that although the agency “is committed to identifying workable protections to preserve Culturally Modified Trees, we believe this proposal would cause significant delays in permits for new housing… create resourcing issues, and cause delays on permit approvals including Master Use Permits, construction permits, and simple over-the-counter permits.”
Generally speaking, “culturally modified trees” are trees that were altered by indigenous residents in the past to serve a cltural purpose, such as peeling bark for baskets and construction materials, marking important locations, or wayfinding. Earlier this year, a developer agreed to preserve large Western red cedar tree in the Wedgwood neighborhood that the Snoqualmie Tribe said had been culturally modified to “mark a trail system that predated the city, and settlers in the area,” according to KUOW. The developers’ own analysis concluded that the tree was around 85 years old, but supporters claimed it was 200 or older, which would make it an ancient outlier among other Western red cedar trees in Seattle.
The decision to save the tree, which Wedgwood residents named “Luma,” on cultural modification grounds paved the way for Pedersen’s legislation, which would make it more difficult and expensive to remove any medium-to-large tree in Seattle.
It’s unclear, however, if the city has the authority to require a state agency to do anything—especially a small agency like the DAHP, which has just six staff to review around 16,000 federal and state projects every year.
“I don’t know how we would do this and on what timeline,” DAHP director Allyson Brooks said. “We don’t even have any staff in Seattle. It’s not realistic.”
“I’m not an attorney, I’m an archaeologist,” Brooks added. “But I don’t see how a local government can pass a law that binds a state agency.”
Neither Pedersen nor SDCI responded to questions last week, and a spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office said he couldn’t comment on whether the city attorney had offered advice to Pedersen’s office on the legality of his proposal. The Snoqualmie Tribe also did not respond to questions last week.
In its stage-setting “whereas” section, the legislation argues that a state law allowing more density in previously exclusive single-family neighborhoods could threaten the existence of many “previously unidentified culturally modified trees” in Seattle, including trees “of particular importance to the Indigenous peoples who have resided in the Puget Sound area… since time immemorial.”
Similarly, despite Pedersen’s lofty language about cultural preservation, his efforts to “save the trees” have long been inextricable from his opposition to new apartments, and he and other density opponents have relied on many different arguments to push for legislation that makes housing harder to build.
Wedgwood, where the median home price is now well over $1 million, was founded as a whites-only outpost in the 1930s, when a builder dredged and cleared the area for development. Today, according to the to the University of Washington, the neighborhood is still “overwhelmingly White,” and its residents have vociferously opposed changes that would alter its suburban character. In 2018, the neighborhood opposed (and ultimately killed) a bike lane that would remove parking spaces along one side of 35th Ave. NE. Initially, the residents focused on the loss of parking, but eventually pivoted to claim that bike lanes were only for “the privileged.”
Similarly, despite Pedersen’s lofty language about cultural preservation, his efforts to “save the trees” have long been inextricable from his opposition to new apartments, and he and other density opponents have relied on many different arguments to push for legislation that makes housing harder to build.
Brooks, from the DAHP, says the need to identify and protect culturally modified trees and other Indigenous archaeological resources is great, but that if Seattle wants to make it a priority, they should hire a city archaeologist, rather than asking the state to come out every time a property owner wants to cut down a mature tree. Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities, whose work often involves digging, have their own archaeological experts, but they deal with utility projects, not tree removal on private property.
Urban environmentalists—that is, pro-housing groups and transit advocates—have been correctly pointing out a serious shortcoming of environmental impact statements: Environmental review has been commandeered by slow-growthers and anti-housing groups to thwart green transit projects and even modest density, such as backyard cottages.
Can we please look at the bigger picture? Adding density not only translates into a better return on infrastructure investments, such as new transit, by improving efficiency and adding riders, but it also reins in sprawl and its accompanying high-carbon commutes. Framing new housing along these lines makes one wonder why we don’t do environmental benefits statements for new development.
Unfortunately, as Erica reported on Monday, the city council is preparing to weaponize the notion of impacts yet again, amending the city’s comprehensive plan to queue up new impact fees on development. Proponents of impact fees say they would fund the new transportation infrastructure needed to accommodate new housing. The populist idea, which unites the council’s right flank (sponsor Alex Pedersen) and left flank (socialist Kshama Sawant) over their shared reactionary utopianism, is a see-through ploy to slow development—also known as housing. Developers—who you might think were manufacturing opioids, not new housing stock, given the blanket animosity they inspire—already pay sales taxes, real estate excise taxes, and Mandatory Affordable Housing fees. In fact, Pedersen’s proposal could cost developers up to four times as much as the annual property taxes on new development, according to a potential fee schedule introduced at a recent council hearing on the comprehensive plan amendment.
Instead of prescribing impact fees on new housing, the council should tax the impact of non-development by authorizing a fee on property owners who live in the vast tracts of our city, 75 percent of Seattle’s developable land, where prohibitive zoning forbids apartments. The city’s current development ban has put inflationary pressure on housing, fueling the affordable housing crisis and creating a disproportionate impact on renters and potential first-time buyers. Meanwhile, homeowner wealth grows. Between 2012 and 2022, the median cost of a house in Seattle rose from $420,000 to $1 million. During the same period, according to data from Zillow, median rents in Seattle rose from around $1,250 in 2012 to $2,350 in 2022.
Critics of new development like to point out that brand-new housing is never affordable to low- and middle-income people. But they seem to miss the fact that the developments they’re criticizing are being built now, under Seattle’s current zoning regulations—not in the up-zoned dystopia that exists in their minds. In other words: It’s the current rules against more density that are raising the price of housing, not some pro-development free-for-all.
Making new housing even more expensive by charging an impact fee for transportation (when we’re already investing in transit through several other streams) is a regressive canard, not a fair policy. Pedersen argued that impact fees could allow the city to lower the next transportation levy, reducing property taxes, but as Erica correctly pointed out, it would simultaneously harm renters by making the cost of new housing more expensive; a majority of the city, around 55 percent, rents.
The pro-housing advocacy group Sightline sent a letter to Mayor Bruce Harrell and the council last week that warned about the regressive effects of existing impact fees in Oregon, where they’re called System Development Charges. Noting that scarce housing markets are likely to make impact fees “fall on renters and new homebuyers,” Sightline cited research that concluded: “Homebuyers and renters in tight housing markets likely bear a greater share of SDC costs than landowners.”
An impact fee on non-development—as opposed to a tax on development—makes sense because you can see the harsh impact of Seattle’s restrictive, status quo zoning laws every day: Gentrification, rising rents, and development that’s clustered along busy, polluted arterial streets.
The Oregon data also concluded that fees kill development (rather than raising any money from it). Sightline’s cautionary letter to Mayor Harrell and the council goes on to argue that impact fees put a disproportionate burden on affordable housing. In Oregon, they wrote, “smaller entry-level homes, lower-cost middle housing and apartments, and communities with weaker markets are disproportionately affected by SDCs. High-end single-family detached housing is generally impacted least.”
Conversely, an impact fee on non-development—as opposed to a tax on development—makes sense because you can see the harsh impact of Seattle’s restrictive, status quo zoning every day: Rising rents; gentrification; development clustered along busy, polluted arterials (about the only place where developers can build dense housing). The regressive status quo forces renters to bear the carcinogenic brunt of the car culture that our suburban-style homeowner zoning promotes; and, because bus routes don’t pencil out in the vast majority of our low-slung city, we’re stuck with an inefficient transit system. Indeed, the best thing we could do for transit isn’t levying a tax on development, but adding more development that would support robust transit.
The council is holding its public hearing on their impact fee proposal on November 7. I agree they should pass an impact fee, but not one that exacerbates our affordable housing crisis. The council should take up the impacts of our current zoning system—the one that’s responsible for forcing people to flee the city’s overpriced housing market—and they should propose an impact fee on the deleterious impact of Seattle’s longstanding, NIMBY prohibition on building homes.
In an unusual move, City Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen persuaded a majority of their council colleagues last week to fast-track an amendment to the city’s Comprehensive Plan that would set the stage for “transportation impact fees” on new housing—fees that are based on the premise that dense, urban living causes negative impacts on the city’s transportation system.
The Comprehensive Plan is the overarching framework for planning and development decisions in Seattle. The changes the council is considering would allow transportation impact fees, “identify deficiencies in the transportation system associated with new development,” and adopt a list of projects that could be funded through such fees.
Pedersen has said fees on new housing could allow the city to reduce the size of the Seattle Transportation Levy, which is paid for by property taxes—lowering taxes for homeowners while raising the cost of new apartments for renters.
The council voted to bypass the normal process for approving changes to the comp plan, skipping Councilmember Dan Strauss’ land use committee to send the proposal directly to the full council, with a single public hearing scheduled for the council’s 2pm meeting on November 7 (coincidentally, Election Day). The council would vote on the amendment itself two weeks later, on November 21—the deadline to push the changes through this year.
Unlike MHA, in which developers fund new affordable housing in exchange for greater housing density, impact fees treat new housing as a bad thing that must be offset by fees to offset its negative impact. This anti-urbanist assumption elides the fact that the hundreds of thousands of people moving to Seattle over the coming decades are going to have to live somewhere—and that if there isn’t enough housing in the city, people, including many who can no longer afford to live in Seattle, will be pushed out into car-dependent suburbs.
Strauss, who has already scheduled a public hearing in the land use committee for November 29, protested this departure from the council’s normal procedures, noting that the city spent years deliberating over changes to industrial zoning and a tree protection ordinance, and both still need work after passing earlier this year. In addition, Strauss noted that the city’s hearing examiner has yet to issue a ruling on an appeal related to the fee proposal, which developers say would have a significant negative environmental impact—namely, it would reduce the amount of new housing in the city.
“I believe it is important that we receive the hearing examiner’s decision and have the time needed … to understand the policy” and hold a public hearing before voting the changes through, Strauss said.
Proponents of the legislation, including Herbold and Council President Debora Juarez, have minimized its impact, calling it a minor “procedural vote” with no actual policy impacts. In reality, changing the city’s Comprehensive Plan to allow impact fees is a consequential decision that could ultimately reduce the amount of housing that gets built inside city limits.
Juarez, Herbold, and Pedersen are not running for reelection and will leave the council at the end of this year.
According to a staff analysis, impact fees could bring in between $200 million and $760 million over 10 years—similar to the Mandatory Housing Affordability program the city adopted in 2019, which allowed denser development in some areas while helping to fund new affordable housing. MHA, like impact fees, was controversial, and the council held “at least 20 committee meetings” before passing it, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted.
Unlike MHA, in which developers fund new affordable housing in exchange for greater housing density, impact fees treat new housing as a bad thing that must be offset by fees to offset its negative impact. This anti-urbanist assumption elides the fact that the hundreds of thousands of people moving to Seattle over the coming decades are going to have to live somewhere—and that if there isn’t enough housing in the city, people, including many who can no longer afford to live in Seattle, will be pushed out into car-dependent suburbs whose negative impacts are well-documented.
Advocates on both sides of the issue will now have just two opportunities to weigh in—once at the full councl meeting on November 7, and two weeks later, when the council is scheduled to take its final vote. Although Pedersen claimed last week that the commenters who showed up to oppose impact fees were just “paid lobbyists” who were “afraid of a public hearing,” Mosqueda argued that the accelerated schedule makes it less likely that ordinary members of the public will be able to weigh in on changes that could further depress housing development in the middle of a housing downturn.
Once the council adopts the changes to the Comprehensive Plan, they can begin the process of adopting the fees themselves. That process will almost certainly have to include additional comp plan changes, since the proposal the council is considering includes a list of projects that includes some that have already received funding—like the RapidRide G line on Madison Street, set to open next year.
Two city council members who have argued for years that developers who build new housing should pay large fees to compensate for their impact on the city’s transportation system may end their terms without seeing their vision realized.
Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Lisa Herbold, who are both leaving the council at the end of this year, have proposed a change to the city’s Comprehensive Plan—the document that guides development in the city—that would dictate how transportation impact fees will be determined in the future and lay out a list of specific projects they will fund. Pedersen, who is leading the charge, wanted to hold the one required public hearing for the change last week, which would queue the changes up for later this month, but land use committee chair Dan Strauss canceled the hearing, saying last week that he wanted to wait for a ruling on a legal challenge related to the fees.
The changes to the comp plan are the second of three necessary steps required to impose the fees; the third and final step would be adopting legislation to implement the fees laid out in the plan.
Pedersen has said fees for new housing could offset the property taxes that pay for the Seattle Transportation Plan, reducing property taxes for homeowners while raising the cost of new apartments. Both property taxes and the cost to build new units ultimately get passed on to renters, but the fees would typically cost far more up front than the annual property taxes for a building, according to both developers’ testimony and PubliCola’s own comparison of actual property taxes for new developments to the fees they would pay under a fee schedule, introduced as part of the city’s defense to the developers’ challenge, which represents the maximum the city could charge for each land use type. The legislation does not include a specific fee schedule.
For example, the owners of a brand-new, 171-unit luxury apartment building called the Ballard Yards will pay about $580,000 in property taxes this year. The impact fee for that same development under the proposed fee scheme, including apartments and the first-floor retail space, would be about $2.2 million, almost four times as much. For a smaller building like the Crane, a five-year-old, 39-unit complex in Interbay, the impact fee would add $495,000 to the cost of development, compared to a little more than $100,000 in annual property taxes.
One reason Pedersen’s proposal would cost developers (and therefore renters) so much more money overall is that the fees are calculated by unit, not development—so that someone building a single-family would pay one fee, while a company building a 100-unit building would pay a separate fee for every unit.
“I’ve tracked this over the years, and every time I dig into it I leave with as many questions as I have answered,” Strauss told PubliCola. For example: “What is the potential impact on MHA? How do we marry it with our budget this year? Are these projects still the right projects?”
During last week’s land use committee meeting, public comment over the proposal was extremely divided, Strauss noted. “To see the divided room—it told me that waiting until the [Seattle] hearing examiner makes their final decision before having that official public hearing was the right choice.”
Earlier this year, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development determined that the fees would have no significant impact on the environment under the State Environmental Policy Act, prompting a group of developers and housing advocates to file an appeal; the city’s hearing examiner held the final hearing on that appeal next week, and will announce his decision sometime in the coming weeks.
In their appeal, the developers and advocates, organized as the Seattle Mobility Coalition, said the new fees would “raise the cost of development in Seattle across the board, amounting to a tax on new housing, which will reduce housing production, increase housing costs and undermine the goals of the Mandatory Housing Affordability (“MHA”) program,” which allowed more density in certain areas in exchange for new affordable housing.
For example, Mill Creek managing director for development Meredith Holzemer said in a declaration, a 397-unit apartment complex the company is planning on South Jackson Street would cost them several million dollars in impact fees over and above the $10 million they will already pay into MHA; the extra fees, Holzemer said, “will render the project economically infeasible and it will not be constructed.”
Although the proposal would exempt housing built specifically for low-income people, that doesn’t address the situation that’s driving up the cost of housing for everyone else: Wealthy people, including newcomers who move here for high-paying tech jobs, are “bidding up” existing units that would otherwise be affordable to middle-income people, pushing up the cost of housing at every level of the market.
Basing future road usage on past behavior is always a stretch, even without a pandemic that completely upended commute patterns and reduced the amount people are driving at rush hour, possibly for the long term. To name just one very recent (and very consequential) example, the state estimated that around 130,000 people would use the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement by 2030, and used that estimate to justify building an $18 million bypass tunnel and the surface-level waterfront highway that is now under construction.
Pedersen and Herbold were quick to point out that changing the city’s Comprehensive Plan is just a precursor to adopting impact fees—one Herbold called a “small procedural step” that “is not complex” at all. In fact, amending the comp plan is a consequential process that the council sets aside time for once a year, usually rejecting a majority of the proposed amendments that come before them. Setting up a plan and project list in the city’s primary planning document isn’t some mere gesture, but a major first step toward adopting the fees themselves.
One reason Pedersen’s proposal would cost developers (and therefore renters) so much more money overall is that the fees are calculated by unit, not development—so that someone building a single-family would pay one fee, while a company building a 100-unit building would pay a separate fee for every unit. The fee for each new apartment would be a few thousand dollars less than for single-family houses or duplex units, but the overall cost would be much higher; developers would also be encouraged to stay away from single-family areas by discounts for building in already-dense urban villages. The proposed fee structure could have the effect of keeping the city’s suburban-style land use patterns the same while placing another wall around historic single-family zones—a longtime goal for Pedersen.
How could someone living in an apartment in a dense area with easy access to transit service “cost” nearly as much, in terms of negative impacts on the city’s transportation system, as someone building a new house in one of Seattle’s car-centric suburban-style neighborhoods? According to the Pedersen-Herbold amendment—which, if adopted, would become a permanent part of the city’s overarching growth strategy—the costs are based on a couple of factors.
The first is “Seattle’s expected growth in person trips over the next 12 years”—that is, how many “trips” Seattle residents will take using the overall transportation system. This measurement of “person trips” comes partly from vehicle trip estimates from the Institute of Transportation Engineers, which uses its own “trip generation manual” to estimate the number of people using the entire transportation system during the evening rush hour, and the Puget Sound Regional Council, which estimates population growth and surveys commuters on how they get around. Using these two tools, the city estimates there will be about 85,000 new rush hour trips every day by 2024, most of them by car.
Perhaps you are sensing one issue with these estimates: Basing future road usage on past behavior is always a stretch, even without a pandemic that completely upended commute patterns and reduced the amount people are driving at rush hour, possibly for the long term. To name just one very recent (and very consequential) example, the state estimated that around 130,000 people would use the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement by 2030, and used that estimate to justify building an $18 million bypass tunnel and the surface-level waterfront highway that is now under construction. When the drivers didn’t arrive—prior to the pandemic, about 53,000 people drove through the tunnel daily, a number that plummeted to 40,000 in 2020—the state’s plan to use tolls to help pay for the tunnel fell apart.
It’s worth noting that the ITE’s predictions have come under significant scrutiny because they overestimate the traffic generated by new development—and especially new apartment buildings—substantially. One comprehensive study found that the ITE overestimated the trips generated by new development, on average, by 55 percent; for new multifamily buildings, the ITE overestimated trips by 108 percent. The city, in other words, could be assuming twice as much “impact” from new apartments, simply in terms of how many new trips they generate, as they have in reality.
Of course, not all trips are created equal—a solo driver has more impact than a single person riding a bus or biking to work, for example. The city’s plan attempts to address this by measuring how much physical space people using different transportation modes take up on the road. A driver, by this measure, takes up 180 square feet of space, whereas a person biking to work takes up 22.5 square feet, so the driver has about 8 times as much impact on the overall transportation system as someone who walks to work.
It’s easy to see why this measure is somewhat silly. It’s obvious that someone driving a 6,000-pound, gas-guzzling Land Rover—or a 8,500-pound electric Rivian!—contributes far more to the state of Seattle’s roads (and traffic) than a cyclist, whose space needs and physical impact are negligible in the first case and basically nonexistent in the second. (Also, bike lanes typically use space that would otherwise be used by heavier, more impactful cars—so wouldn’t they have a positive impact?) If eight cyclists are the equivalent of one vehicle, then it makes sense to assume an apartment building where almost everyone walks or rides a bike has the same impact as dozens of new lawn-locked single-family houses with two or three vehicles in the driveway.
And, of course, these estimates all assume that every new person has only a negative impact on the transportation system and the environment—ignoring the many positive impacts of living in the city rather than commuting into Seattle by car from a highway-dependent suburb.
Pedersen and Herbold have tried to rush their impact fee proposal through while they’re still on the council—an acknowledgement, perhaps, that this isn’t a priority for other elected officials. None of the people running for open council seats have identified impact fees as a campaign issue, and it’s possible, perhaps likely, that if the proposal doesn’t go forward this year, it will die from lack of interest.
But there are some pretty significant reasons not to push forward with a fee proposal before the end of the year. First of all, it’s pretty clear that the proposal is a bit half-baked. The list of projects the fee would help fund was developed by then-councilmember Mike O’Brien back in 2018, and it’s showing its age. The list includes some projects that have already been fully funded—the bus-rapid transit project on Madison Street, for example—and others that may now be outdated or lower-priority. In theory, the city could enshrine the project list in its comprehensive plan and then amend it list later, but why adopt a major change to the city’s growth plan without a public discussion of the projects a new impact fee would fund?
It’s debatable, for example, whether renters who live in a new building on Capitol Hill ought to be paying directly for improvements for freight trucks driving on East Marginal Way, which is one of many road improvements on the list of projects ostensibly impacted by new housing. And, as Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted last week, it’s unclear whether the project list represents an equitable distribution of improvements around the city, relative to the equity impacts of adding to the cost of housing in areas that may desperately need it.
“I want to make sure that… we look closely at whether or not there is an a disproportionate impact on equity or [Race and Social Justice Initiative issues that our city closely monitors” before adopting impact fees, said Mosqueda, who submitted a list of about a dozen questions about the proposal to the council’s central staff. “I understand the comments that were made” by Pedersen and Herbold “about how [outreach for this proposal includes] every stakeholder that has informed the pedestrian, bike, and transit plans, but that does not equal to me an RSJI equity analysis for this specific proposal.”
Indeed, Pedersen has waved aside concerns about outreach and engagement on his fee proposal by repeatedly pulling up a pie chart, based on undisclosed data, showing that 75 percent of people his office surveyed supported the proposal. Here it is:
Beyond the dubious project list, Pedersen and Herbold are trying to move the new fees forward at a pace they would never have allowed a proposal like MHA, which allowed slightly more density in exchange for new fees to fund affordable housing. Herbold, in fact, pushed for more process and deliberation before passing MHA (which she ultimately supported), and Pedersen made opposition to the program a centerpiece of his campaign for office, later hiring a homeowner activist who repeatedly sued the city to stop MHA as his legislative assistant. MHA went through years of deliberation before it even came before the council, followed by months of meetings and extensive outreach to every neighborhood in the city.
In contrast, Pedersen has made it clear he hoped to pass the comprehensive plan amendment, setting up a process to quickly pass impact fees, in the course of a couple of weeks. Now that that won’t happen, it will be up to the council to decide whether to consider the plan before he and Herbold leave. If the hearing examiner comes back with a ruling quickly, and sides with the city, Pedersen will have to provide 30 days’ notice of a new public hearing, which would push the proposal well into the period when the council will be debating the 2024 budget.
If the council decides it’s too busy with the budget to add changing the comprehensive plan to their schedule, it would push the debate into next year, when there’s a distinct possibility that no one will be motivated to bring it up again. Currently, housing construction is on a downward trajectory, thanks in no small part to the city’s slow permitting process, with just 441 master use permits last year compared to 975 in 2015.
Recently, the Puget Sound Business Journal announced that developer Barrientos Ryan backed out of plans to build a 300-unit “workforce housing” development along 15th Ave. W in Interbay, citing new requirements from the city that added more than $1 million in unanticipated costs. Instead of housing, the property will now be home to 20 new pickleball courts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ron Davis, a tech entrepreneur and urbanist who’s running for the District 4 (northeast Seattle) city council seat being vacated by one-term Councilmember Alex Pedersen, is a first-time candidate who decided to run before he knew Pedersen was leaving his seat—spurred on, he told PubliCola, by frustration with the incumbent’s intransigence on housing, taxation, and the city budget. “Alex was a wall-builder extraordinaire—he literally uses the power of the regulatory state to keep people out of high opportunity neighborhoods,” Davis said.
Davis, who announced his candidacy on January 31, grew up in a working-class family that rose into the middle class through what he calls “almost the fairy-tale American dream,” enabling him to go to Harvard Law School school and ultimately create and sell off a software company that aimed to reduce burnout and stress for call-center employees. Since selling that company, he’s been a sales executive and consultant for tech companies, and more recently started getting involved in local politics, joining the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association, 46th District Democrats, Sound Transit’s Citizen Oversight Panel, and the boards of Futurewise and Seattle Subway, a pro-transit group.
If that seems an awful lot like the resume of someone who’s been planning to run for office for a while, Davis doesn’t disagree. “I have a lot of passion for local land use and transit, and although there area lot of levers that can be pulled at the state state level and other places, I care about my local community and I was represented by someone that made me crazy.” After talking with local political leaders, campaign consultants, and policy experts, it “became clear that that [running for council] was the best fit,” Davis said.
“The 15-minute city concept has been really abused here to justify urban villages. It’s supposed to be that every person lives in a 15-minute city, not little 15-minute neighborhoods that are stuck on arterials everyone can drive through.”
If he’s elected, Davis said, he’ll push for a more inclusive housing strategy for the city, starting with the city’s comprehensive plan, which is up for a major revision this year. The city’s decades-old “urban village” strategy, which concentrates multifamily housing along busy arterial roads while reserving most of the city’s residential land for suburban-style single-family houses, is on the table.
“The fact that all five [comprehensive plan] options still include urban villages is preposterous,” Davis said. “The 15-minute city concept”—the idea that everyone should be able to access what they need within 15 minutes without a car—”has been really abused here to justify urban villages. … It’s supposed to be that every person lives in a 15-minute city, not little 15-minute neighborhoods that are stuck on arterials everyone can drive through.”
Davis, unsurprisingly, connects density to homelessness—you can’t solve homelessness without housing, and you can’t build housing in cities where it isn’t allowed—but he also said he supports adding a lot more shelter while the region ramps up housing investments, a view that puts him in the company of both the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and Mayor Bruce Harrell.
“You can throw a million social workers at a problem—and we do need more, and they need to be paid a living wage—but at some point, if they don’t have resources to offer, they’re going to be limited in what they can do,” Davis said. “I think one of the mistakes that we on the left have made is [not acknowledging] it takes a ton of money and time to build the houses. We have to build the housing. I’m 1,000 percent for that. But … I am for intermediate solutions while we build,” like tiny houses and safe lots for people living in their vehicles, Davis said.
The city recently convened a new progressive revenue task force to come up with recommendations to increase revenues at the local level—including, potentially, for affordable housing. At the same time, Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed a statewide ballot measure to authorize $4 billion in bonds to fund thousands of new units across the state.
Davis said he supports both those efforts, but when it comes to housing for people experiencing homelessness in King County, “I would rather see a serious King County tax, so that it would be genuinely regional, and … so that various individual governments wouldn’t have an incentive to defect and hold everyone else hostage.” Currently, only King County and Seattle fund the regional homelessness authority, although four north King County cities recently voted to contribute.
Davis is currently one of three people seeking the District 4 seat—the others are socialist UW grad student Matthew Mitnick and former Teresa Mosqueda opponent Kenneth Wilson—but the race for this open position will almost certainly get more viable candidates in the months before the May filing deadline. State Rep. Gerry Pollet, who was a rumored candidate for the seat, did not respond to PubliCola’s questions last month.
In preparation for sparring with Sandeep about Alex Pedersen’s record on Seattle Nice this week, I looked back through our coverage of the one-term council member, who recently announced he won’t seek reelection.
Instead, it spoke to Pedersen’s penchant for spinning up misleading narratives to flatter his conservative-for-Seattle base. (Pedersen, like most of the technically nonpartisan council, is a Democrat). In a statement explaining his vote to reject the budget, Pedersen accused his council colleagues of defunding the police—an inflammatory (and patently false) claim that council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda called “a willful attempt to spread misinformation.”
Pedersen’s throwback agenda went beyond putting as many cops on the streets as possible. The former Tim Burgess council aide consistently treated new housing like a burden to be borne by existing homeowners, rather than an asset that keeps neighborhoods lively and neighborhood businesses alive. Even before he ran for office, Pedersen argued in his newsletter, Four to Explore, that “density ideologues” were trying to shove housing into neighborhoods that were already full; unsurprisingly, he vehemently opposed the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), which allowed modest density increases in a tiny swath of Seattle’s dominant single-family areas.
Pedersen picked up on this theme as soon as he was elected, using one of the city’s most enviable attributes—our (inequitably distributed) tree canopy—to argue against new housing. One of his first acts as council member was to call a meeting to discuss future legislation to “protect” individual trees on privately owned land by preventing development of denser housing where single-family homes now stand. Draft legislation to make it harder and more expensive to remove trees is still moving forward with support from Pedersen and his Northwest Seattle colleague Dan Strauss. Pedersen has also consistently supported “impact fees” that would make dense rental housing more costly to build—an anti-affordability strategy wrapped in an anti-displacement façade.
One of his first acts as council member was to call a meeting to discuss future legislation to “protect” individual trees on privately owned land by preventing development of denser housing where single-family homes now stand.
Even when Pedersen supported legislation that would be beneficial to renters—such as a bill, also backed by socialist District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant, that would have required landlords to disclose the rents they charge—his rationale was still anti-development. In the case of the rent transparency bill (which Mayor Bruce Harrell ultimately vetoed), Pedersen said the data would be a useful argument for preserving development restrictions in the city’s upcoming comprehensive plan update. Separately, Pedersen opposed statewide legislation that would have allowed fourplexes and sixplexes in more areas, calling it an “ill-conceived” preemption of local control that would destroy “naturally occurring” single-family affordable housing in Seattle.
Advocates for nonmotorized transportation were understandably concerned when Pedersen became chair of the council transportation committee, a position he still holds. Years before his 2019 election, Pedersen argued against renewing the city’s transportation levy, in part because it supposedly prioritized bike lanes over “basics” like sidewalks, “traffic congestion,” and bridges. He also opposed Sound Transit 3, the 2016 light-rail expansion measure, and the completion of the downtown streetcar, arguing that buses are cheaper and more flexible—a familiar argument that is also, ultimately, an argument against transit-oriented density.
Pedersen’s term as transportation chair was largely dominated by the closure and subsequent repair of the West Seattle bridge. Still, during a time when pedestrian and cyclist deaths reached unprecedented levels, his lack of enthusiasm for bike lanes never diminished. In his first year on the council, Pedersen opposed a protected bike lane in his district, saying the safety upgrade was unnecessary because cyclists could simply zigzag from street to street, using disconnected short stretches of future bike-friendly “greenways” to avoid busy Eastlake Ave. He expanded this argument to apply to the city as a whole, arguing year after year that bridge maintenance should be a higher priority than bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
Few things, however, got Pedersen quite so worked up as the council’s habit of expressing their views on various issues via nonbinding resolution, a practice he found so irksome that he proposed (and passed) not one but two bills intended to curb them.
Pedersen’s political supporters (like my friend Sandeep) argue that he has served as a “voice of reason” on the council, preventing the council’s left wing from running amok. In reality, Pedersen generated little original legislation and spent much of his time arguing against his colleagues’ proposals.
Few things, however, got Pedersen quite so worked up as the council’s habit of expressing their views on various issues via nonbinding resolution, a practice he found so irksome that he proposed (and passed) not one but two bills intended to curb them. The first, in response to a Sawant-backed bill condemning an anti-Muslim citizenship law in India, was a sarcastic resolution condemning “all forms of oppression affecting communities throughout the world.” The second allowed councilmembers to refrain from voting on nonbinding resolutions entirely—an option he and his closest ally Sara Nelson have exercised repeatedly ever since.
In his announcement that he won’t seek reelection, Pedersen padded his list of geniune accomplishments (progress toward banning leaf blowers, more speed cameras in school zones, a new tiny house village in his district) with squishier stuff: Supporting Harrell’s agenda on police funding and homelessness, the renewal of a transportation tax for bus service, the approval of two Harrell appointments, and working to stop the sale of the National Archives building at Sand Point, a Trump-era decision that President Biden reversed in 2021. The modesty of these achievements suggests Pedersen’s true legacy on the council: Not a voice of reason, but the voice of “no.”
1. After voting against the 2023-2024 city budget yesterday, City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen issued lengthy statements explaining their rationale. In general, both argued that the council should have approved Mayor Bruce Harrell’s budget without significant changes, and should not have eliminated 80 of the 240 vacant police positions for which SPD would otherwise receive funding year after year.
The council funded Harrell’s entire police hiring plan, including large financial incentives for new and transferring officers, and moved parking enforcement officers back to SPD, another top priority for Harrell and the police department.
Still, Nelson and Pedersen described the budget (which Harrell praised) as an affront that will endanger resident and drive qualified police applicants away “With SPD down about 30% of its deployable force and fatal shootings up 35% since 2020, these are far from normal times, and we need to change the narrative that contributed to their staffing shortage,” Nelson said.
Those numbers require some context: There were 36 fatal shootings in Seattle in the first ten months of 2022, compared to 24 for the same period in 2020—at 33 percent increase. But those disturbing numbers of part of a national trend that is actually worse in rural (and Republican) areas, making it a stretch to suggest that shootings are up because of police staffing problems. Similarly, it’s far-fetched to suggest that a largely symbolic (and fairly obscure) council vote to stop funding some long-vacant positions is driving potential job applicants away.
“At best, Nelson and Pedersen are exhibiting sheer incompetence, but unfortunately it appears it’s a wilfull attempt to spread misinformation to prop up their individual political goals. They are being dishonest and actively harmful.”—Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda
On Wednesday, council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda responded to the overheated rhetoric from Nelson and Pedersen, telling PubliCola: “At best, Nelson and Pedersen are exhibiting sheer incompetence, but unfortunately it appears it’s a wilfull attempt to spread misinformation to prop up their individual political goals. They are being dishonest and actively harmful.”
Although Nelson was just elected to her citywide position last year, Pedersen (who represents Northeast Seattle’s District 4) is up for reelection in 2023. One candidate has already announced, and PubliCola has heard about at least one more potential opponent—an urbanist who will challenge Pedersen from the pro-housing left.
2. One program that did not receive full funding from the council this year—the Public Defender Association’s Co-LEAD program, which provides case management and hotel-based shelter to people experiencing homelessness—may end up having to shift their focus away from Seattle neighborhoods to encampments near state highways, PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard said.
That’s because without $5.3 million in annual city funding to keep the program going, the PDA may end up moving Co-LEAD to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which has access to state funds to address encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, such as embankments and overpasses.
“[Focusing on state highways] will take us further away from the focus on public safety in Seattle neighborhoods and the public safety concepts that both the Harrell Administration and the City Council have strongly espoused.—Public Defender Association co-director Lisa Daugaard
The PDA made a similar change to its JustCARE program, which previously focused on large encampments inside the city of Seattle, earlier this year. The program moves encampment residents to hotels and enrolls them in intensive case management, enabling the Washington State Department of Transportation to remove encampments in state rights-of-way—a top goal of Gov. Jay Inslee during the last legislative session—without simply displacing them.
“I think the most likely solution is that more of Co-LEAD may shift over to RHA, if indeed RHA is successful in advocating for the state to double down on the approach that we and other partners have brought to the state transportation right-of-way work,” Daugaard said. “But that will take us further away from the focus on public safety in Seattle neighborhoods… [and] the public safety concepts that both the Harrell Administration and the City Council have strongly espoused.”
JustCARE and Co-LEAD both emerged during the pandemic, with support from emergency federal funding, to address the proliferation of large, sometimes dangerous encampments in places like City Hall Park in Pioneer Square. The council’s budget does provide funding for LEAD, the PDA’s original diversion program, which provides case management to people involved in the criminal legal system, such as homeless people facing charges for misdemeanor crimes.