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.