Tag: tree ordinance

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.


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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Seattle’s Newest Council Member, Alex Pedersen, In Three Meetings

Seattle’s “urban forest,” complete with single-family-only zoning and private driveways for private cars.

1. On Monday, new District 4 city council member Alex Pedersen cast the lone “no” vote against legislation transferring a small piece of land in Wallingford (or, as Pedersen called it, “East Fremont”) from the Finance and Administrative Services department to the Seattle Department of Transportation. The land transfer will allow SDOT to extend a bus lane on N. 45th St. and speed travel times on Metro’s Route 44, which is one of the only east-west bus routes north of the Ship Canal. The Urbanist first reported on the proposed changes back in June. SDOT told the Urbanist that the spot changes, which also involve moving an intersection and converting a short stretch of 45th to one-way traffic, will improve travel times for nearly half of all Route 44 riders.

Pedersen said Monday that he was voting against the transfer because he had “gotten some feedback from residents of East Fremont” involving “access and traffic calming for residents.”

“East Fremont,” for those unfamiliar with fights over neighborhood nomenclature, is a part of Wallingford that the Fremont Neighborhood Council has long insisted is part of Fremont. Toby Thaler, the longtime head of the FNC, is now Pedersen’s advisor on land use and transportation.

Pedersen’s office responded to a request for comment by directing me to the video of the meeting. In a letter to a constituent, he went into slightly more detail, saying that his “concern with this project was the public engagement process, which could have benefited from more time to craft community-informed win-win solutions.” He added: “The ordinance was approved and my vote signaled to SDOT that it’s important for them to work to resolve issues from more than one angle.”

2. Pedersen took what seemed to be the opposite position on a different transportation project in his district‚ the redesign of Brooklyn Ave—arguing in favor of buses over a planned “green street” that will be too narrow to accommodate buses in the future. The redesign is part of the new University District light rail station.

At a briefing on the city’s Transportation Benefit District last Thursday, Pedersen asked two SDOT staffers if they had “heard about the bus lanes on Brooklyn issue,” then explained: “Brooklyn Avenue is going to be built too narrow to accommodate buses, and Sound Transit [is] worried if there are going to be any changes, if we try to widen it so it can accommodate buses, it’ll screw up Sound Transit’ schedule. … I don’t know if that’s something on the agenda to talk with Sound Transit about—to assure them that SDOT is able to get things done on Brooklyn.”

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Sound Transit’s plans for the new station include a “Green Street” on Brooklyn designed primarily for pedestrian traffic, with narrow lanes, a 20mph speed limit, and pedestrian improvements designed to drive car traffic away from the street and encourage bike and pedestrian traffic. Brooklyn is not currently a bus corridor. A group called U District Mobility, which includes a number of transit advocacy groups, has asked Sound Transit to widen Brooklyn to accommodate buses in the future.

In a joint statement, Sound Transit and SDOT told The C Is for Crank that the planning for the Brooklyn street design has been going on since at least 2014, when the city published the U District Green Street Concept Plan, and “the public clearly expressed that access to the station was a top priority.”

“Significant modifications to Brooklyn Ave NE would be needed to accommodate buses. While future revisions to the street may be a possibility after light rail opens, there is neither the time nor the funding for such revisions to be in place by the time the U District station is scheduled to open in 2021.”

The meeting doubled as an impromptu rally for tree activists, who condemned developers for “scraping [single-family] lots” and have accused the city of trying to “clearcut Seattle.”

3. Most council committee chairs have canceled their regularly scheduled meetings through the holidays, but Pedersen is making the most of his status as temporary chair of the land use committee, holding a special meeting to discuss the future of Seattle’s tree protection ordinance—a document that has galvanized activists ever since it first passed in 2001. (Pedersen inherited his chairmanship from temporary council member Abel Pacheco, who inherited it from Rob Johnson, who left the council in April. New committees and chairmanships will be announced in January).

The meeting  was billed as a briefing by “outside expert[s]” on the “need for and status of activity to implement Resolution 31902 concerning development of an updated Seattle Tree Ordinance.” The nonbinding resolution talks about the need to protect trees on single-family properties and to increase Seattle’s tree canopy to 30 percent of the city’s land area. (The advocacy group American Forests no longer recommends adopting percentage-based canopy cover goals and suggests providing density bonuses to developers who agree to plant trees.)

The meeting doubled as an impromptu rally for tree activists, who condemned developers for “scraping [single-family] lots” and have accused the city of trying to “clearcut Seattle.” One speaker called for a “moratorium on development” based on “primacy for trees,” and suggested “rewild[ing] areas too dense now for climate justice.” Another suggested that Seattle model itself after Cleveland, Ohio, which is “lapping Seattle” in terms of adding trees. This is true: Cleveland is “rewilding” the city—because the city is in decline; in order to cut down on blight, the hollowed-out city is tearing down thousands of houses abandoned by people who moved away. Continue reading “Seattle’s Newest Council Member, Alex Pedersen, In Three Meetings”