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Seattle Working On New Tree Ordinance To Protect And Increase Canopy

Flickr via Compfight
A tree on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle, seen in May 2018.

Trees provide lots of benefits that make cities more livable and ecosystems healthier. Smaller cities around the region, including Redmond and Lake Forest Park, have ordinances in place to protect larger trees from being cut down by developers or homeowners.

But Seattle’s laws are not adequately protecting its canopy. The current ordinance is a temporary one that was supposed to be replaced long ago.

A new one in the works is expected to be finalized this fall. It  aims to expand regulations and extend protections to more private land, especially to trees associated with single-family homes.

The city’s climate goals include increasing Seattle’s tree canopy so it covers at least 30 percent of surface area in city limits by 2037, with an aspirational goal of reaching 40 percent by 2047. But current laws aren’t helping to reach those targets. 

“Right now, we have different rules for single family home owners than we do for developers,” said City Councilmember Rob Johnson, who chairs Seattle’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee.  

He says the city isn’t keeping track of removals or their effect on the canopy. And developers who want to take out trees face a convoluted process, while homeowners face very little process at all.

“So, the first thing we’re going to do is require everybody, regardless of whether you’re a single-family homeowner or a developer, to get a permit to cut down trees over a certain size,” Johnson said.  

What that size should be is one the sticking points. Debate is centered on whether the threshold would be for a 6-inch or 12-inch diameter at chest height.

Mary Fleck is co-chair of the Seattle Green Spaces Coalition, one of several nonprofit environmental groups advocating for a strong new ordinance. She says 12 inches would be too large, because most trees would not be covered by that standard.

“You’re missing most of the trees. Less than 20 percent would meet that measurement. So you would create a wonderful ordinance, but most of the trees wouldn’t be included,” she said.

Fleck says the 6-inch threshold would cover more than half of all trees on private property.

Johnson says he also backs that stricter proposal for environmental reasons. But he says there are practical concerns about enforcement. Currently, nine city departments are involved in regulating tree removals.

Another proposal would streamline the process and create a central one-stop shop for permitting, but Johnson said that issue would be subject to mayoral approval.

In any case, the permits would require replanting on site to replace the lost tree or paying a fee instead. The city would then use the money collected to plant trees in neighborhoods that currently lack good canopy and are described as "heat islands" needing more coverage. These are primarily places in Southeast Seattle.

Legal reviews are taking longer than expected, but Johnson says a draft ordinance should be out in mid-July, with hopes to pass it into law in September, before annual budget discussions begin.

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