Seattle tree protection ordinance, years in the making, is up for a vote

A sweeping tree ordinance up for a vote by the Seattle City Council on Tuesday will protect more of the city’s existing canopy and create new requirements for tree replacement.

How the Emerald City ought to protect its trees has long generated heated public discourse, community support, lawsuits and, at one point, a tree murder song. Aside from aesthetics, debate over tree preservation has pitted arguments for climate resiliency against housing affordability, with both sides claiming, in the name of equity, that both are possible.

While rules for a specific tree depend on zoning, whether development is occurring and the tree’s size and species, if passed, the new ordinance will protect 88,100 trees, far more than the 17,700 protected under the current code.

It would also create a “payment in lieu” system that allows developers and property owners to pay into a central public fund instead of replacing a tree removed during construction or due to it being a hazard. The payment system is modeled off one in Portland, and is expected to generate $191,000 in 2024.

Council members will vote on a bill years in the making, between draft legislation developed under Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration, interim measures passed over a decade ago and a proposed ordinance dating back to 1999.

After an all-day session of discussion and votes on over 50 amendments, the council’s Land Use Committee passed the bill this month in a 4-1 vote with Councilmember Alex Pedersen casting the lone vote in opposition.

Tree preservationists point out trees absorb water during heavy rainfall and prevent heat islands. Recent research shows Seattle’s tree canopy has shrunk, especially in less-affluent neighborhoods like Delridge and Rainier Beach, and some neighborhoods can be significantly hotter than the coolest.

Simultaneously, the city faces a housing shortage and affordability crisis. Builders say that having to account for large trees when developing a piece of property can lengthen design review periods, cut into the bottom line and generally make new homes harder to build. Builders also argue increasing housing in existing urban areas prevents energy-inefficient suburban sprawl and forests from being clear cut.

The proposed tree ordinance has been no less embattled. Seattle’s Urban Forestry Commission is asking council members to defer the vote Tuesday until the end of July, arguing it was developed too hastily and that it will worsen existing inequities in canopy coverage.

Pedersen, in a statement, agreed, calling the ordinance a “death sentence for hundreds of trees throughout our city” and a “profits protection bill.”

Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss, chair of the land use committee, said he believes the bill is balanced, protecting trees without putting them at odds with housing. Strauss said he would support additional legislation to refine the bill but that it is a good sign neither side is completely satisfied.

“We can’t take another day to protect the trees in our city,” he said.

What protections will trees get?

Under Seattle’s current tree code, trees over 30 inches in diameter are considered “exceptional” and in most cases, cannot be removed, though some species are granted this status at smaller widths. Replacing trees under 30 inches is not required currently.

The proposed ordinance expands the exceptional category to trees 24 inches or wider, and creates new designations and rules for trees under that size.

If passed Tuesday afternoon, any tree wider than 12 inches will have to be replaced if cut down. Any tree larger than 12 inches wide must be replaced by one or more new trees and must eventually produce the same amount of canopy as before.

If the tree cannot be replaced, the developer must pay a fee into the central fund, which could be used to replant trees in diverse neighborhoods with less canopy coverage.

In March, Mayor Bruce Harrell issued an executive order that requires every healthy tree removed from city land must be replaced with three more. Trees that died or are hazardous must be replaced with two.

Much debate on the new rules has hinged upon when trees can be cut in commercial areas or areas zoned for low-rise apartment buildings and town homes. Currently, large trees can be removed during construction if the developer cannot feasibly build on a certain amount of the property. Tree advocates and builders have debated a wonky provision on exactly how lot coverage should be measured.

After lengthy public comment, council members voted in May to approve amendments that would allow developers to cut down trees if they cannot achieve 85% lot coverage in low-rise zoned areas or 100% lot coverage in commercially zoned areas when including hardscape elements like patios and walkways.

Under the current system, builders say it is hard to know on day one whether a tree can stay or go, said Aliesha Ruiz, Seattle government affairs manager with the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. That lack of predictability means the permit review process can drag on for months while costs build up, sometimes making a project too expensive to be worth building, she said.

“It’s a lot of money, so builders right now under this current code just don’t take the risk,” Ruiz said.

Strauss said the proposed ordinance includes design flexibility to allow for both housing and trees. For an example, if a tree is being protected, the ordinance allows for the building to be closer to the property line or reduces the amount of space required for amenities or landscaping.

Urban Forestry Commission co-chair Joshua Morris said he’s skeptical the flexibilities will be enough to protect any large trees in areas zoned for the densest forms of development and neighborhoods that already have fewer trees and tend to house more diverse or lower-income communities.

Will denser neighborhoods result in fewer trees?

One large question that remains is how Washington’s newly passed middle housing bill, which will allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes to be built in nearly every Seattle neighborhood, could affect the city’s canopy.

As written, the state law will affect areas currently zoned exclusively for single-family homes. When the middle housing law is implemented, residentially zoned areas will not get rezoned but rather will have new rules that allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes to be built, Strauss said.

Cities have until June 2025 to come into compliance with the new law. Between updating the city’s comprehensive plan next year and then passing code changes, it could take up to two years until duplexes and fourplexes are allowed to be built in residential areas, he said.

Currently, Seattle law dictates that homes in residential areas can cover up to 35% of the lot. While increasing that limit is not required for implementing the state’s middle housing law, Strauss said changing that limit would require a lengthy process of updating the building code.

Patti Bakker, a forestry policy adviser with Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment who helps support the city’s Urban Forestry Commission, said she believes the tree ordinance strikes a good balance between housing and stronger tree protections.

Ruiz said the bill is the “most balanced version” the city has produced and the voice of housing has been raised in the conversation.

Morris said although he thinks the bill skews in favor of developers, he’s excited to see an improvement to the current tree code and hopes the momentum will open doors to more legislative change.

“This is certainly not the end of the tree code story in Seattle,” he said, “but I choose to be optimistic.”

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