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New protections for Seattle’s trees are inching forward

COP27 Climate Change City Trees
Stephen Brashear/AP
FR159797 AP
A stressed western red cedar loaded with seed pods is visible, on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, in Seattle. Increasingly, the challenge for city arborists is to keep old and new trees alive, and it's incurring a bigger hit on municipal budgets. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Long awaited-amendments to Seattle's tree ordinance have been released. It’s a balancing act between making room for more housing and ensuring that the urban forest thrives.

Seattle has lost 255 acres of its tree canopy in the last five years. According to the city's latest assessment, most of that in less affluent parts of the city.

Councilmember Dan Strauss heads up Seattle's land use committee. He said the new legislation will protect more trees even as people make room for much needed housing.

"And so these rules make it very clear for somebody that wants to build housing, if they are going to purchase a lot, whether or not that tree can come down. They get to understand that information at the outset" Strauss said.

The ordinance would require in lieu fees when certain trees are cut down for a tree fund that the city will use to replant.

Strauss said developers won't like it but setting expectations from the outset "will assist in developing housing while protecting trees."

Tree advocates say the new legislation eliminates protections on smaller trees that are critical to growing the canopy for the future.

Steve Zemke, chair of Friends of Seattle’s Urban Forest, has worked on updates to the city’s tree ordinance for about 15 years.

Zemke said there’s a lot to like in the latest proposal, but also some problems. A big one is that it only requires developers to include trees that are 12 inches and larger in diameter in their site plans. He said it should start at six inches.

"Because those trees, the smaller trees, are ultimately replacement trees that survive for trees that die. Trees don't live forever," Zemke told KNKX.

"We need to track what's going on and a tree that's six inches in diameter, it's probably been out there 15, 20 years, meaning it's a survivor."

He added that newly planted trees may not all survive. Zemke would also like the city to require a tree inventory before any lot is developed.

The city will soon schedule a public hearing on the legislation, likely in mid-April.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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