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Can Seattle balance its need for housing with its need for trees?

A woman with long dark hair wearing a coat stands on a wooden boardwalk with greenery and houses behind her.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Lia Hall, a community representative on Seattle's Urban Forestry Commission, stands on a boardwalk leading to the housing development that displaced 4 acres of wild forest in her neighborhood of Rainer Beach. She wants the city to protect more trees.

Lia Hall stands on a boardwalk near a dense patch of forested wetland in Rainier Beach. It’s just down the road from Seattle’s 20-acre Kubota Garden. This tiny piece of greenbelt, tucked between several south Seattle single-family homes, attracts all kinds of birds and other wildlife, who fill the air with trills, whistles and barks.

But when Hall comes here, she remembers what's missing: four acres of wild forest that developers cut down, to make room for townhomes. She recalls the sound of chainsaws and heavy equipment scraping the forest floor. And she thinks about a particular cottonwood tree she used to visit regularly, watching how the light played through its leaves at different angles as they changed with the seasons.

"It just had this majestic quality about it — it had a charisma,” she said. She still gasps as she remembers how heartbroken she felt, seeing it cut down, its bark stripped away and discarded next to the bare trunk.

“It was like skin (…) touching its body. It still had life in it and it was laying on the ground."

The 4-acre forest was on private land, so she knew it was unlikely to remain wild and untouched. Still, it hurts to see it gone. She doesn’t blame the people who moved in to the new market rate townhomes at Kubota Village. But, it bothers her that many of the trees the developer planted as replacements around the new homes are not well cared for.

As Hall investigated the policies that let to this situation, trying to better understand the culture of her city, she found more questions than answers. So she applied for, and got, a volunteer position on the City of Seattle’s Urban Forestry Commission. She’s appointed, by City Council, as the community and neighborhoods representative. She said more people need to recognize all the benefits trees provide.

"These trees are cleaning our air and they're helping to mitigate storm water runoff into the lake and helping to not overload our sewer system,” Hall said. “…apart from like, carbon sequestration and all of that.”

Mature trees also provide cool shade in the warming climate, increase property values and improve mental well-being.

Seattle's canopy goal: 30% by 2037

Seattle set a goal of increasing its urban canopy to 30% coverage by 2037 — despite intense pressure for more housing. That's why City Council is updating the city’s tree protection ordinance, for trees that grow on private property.

City Council is scheduled to vote on proposed update at a full council meeting on May 23. There are intense passions and interests on both sides of what has become a trees-versus-housing debate. A recent Land Use Committee meeting ran through 50 proposed amendments, submitted by tree advocates as well as developers. The resulting document is 62-pages long.

“I know it's not exactly everything that everyone wants. I have gotten some angry messages from builders. I've gotten some sad messages from people who don't want to see a tree ever cut down. And what that tells me is that we are in a good middle zone," said Councilmember Dan Strauss, who chairs the committee and has made passing a new tree protection ordinance a personal priority.

That effort first got attention from Seattle’s Mayor and city council in 1999 and has stalled repeatedly over more than two decades.

It’s facing more urgency now. Despite its reputation as "the Emerald City" in "the Evergreen State," Seattle has been losing trees. A recent study measuring the tree canopy showed it shrank by255 acres in just 5 years — an area roughly the size of Seattle's Green Lake.

The update to the city’s tree protection ordinance should help reverse that trend. However, new language in the legislation gives equal weight to increasing tree protection and the need for more housing production.

At its heart, the ordinance would extend regulations to more trees — as many as 70,000 more — and require people who cut them down to replace them or pay for permits. It aims to discourage unnecessary tree removals and to create more equity among neighborhoods through increased tree planting. Historical data on redlining by racist banks shows that lower income areas, where more people of color tend to live, typically also lack canopy and the health benefits it provides.

If it passes, the rules for developers will cover trees with trunks as small as 12 inches in diameter, down from 30 inches. Homeowners would face new regulations on trees as small as 6-inches around. The permitting fees would go into a dedicated fund for tree planting on public land in areas of the city that lack them.

Even if the city can better protect and replace trees, growing the canopy remains a challenge as existing trees become stressed by changing climate conditions.

Developers want predictability

The ordinance also includes new flexibility for developers, who are under pressure to build more housing in dense areas, and to do so quickly.
Jason Simonis specializes in "infill construction" and testified earlier this month. He was one of several builders who shared their concern that a difficult job is about to get harder.

“Something that we all are looking for currently is a more legible, clear cut, predictable path for how to do both, which is: still continue to build construction at an affordable rate as well as keep the trees or plant new trees,” he said.

A brown evergreen tree stands behind a smaller pine tree that leans to the left.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Replacement trees planted near the townhomes at Kubota Village. Lia Hall, a volunteer with Seattle’s Urban Forestry Commission, is concerned that these young trees aren't well cared for.

One demand from builders, which made it into the legislation, is a guaranteed allowance for hardscape coverage of up to 85% on lots in low-rise zones and 100% in high-rise zones. That means those lots can be covered in concrete or asphalt, leaving little or no room for trees.

This provision is one that tree protection advocates made their highest priority to fight. They lobbied for rivaling amendments, and the city’s Urban Forestry Commission wrote a letter detailing a series of concerns. All were rejected, with 4-1 votes, by the land use committee. Only Councilmember Alex Pederson, who is not running for re-election, voted in favor of them.

Strauss said the allowances are needed because of other city requirements that take up space, like walkways and garbage storage. He said developers can still add greenery on top of hardscape. He believes the net effect of the updated ordinance will be more trees.

"We are incentivizing builders to protect these trees because if they have to pay an in-lieu fee or a replacement, that's cutting into their bottom line, that's cutting into their profit.” Strauss said.

Tree protection groups are still worried that this policy could work against Seattle's goals to increase the canopy.

Tree advocates ask: who is this policy for?

Susan Su is a busy new mom who lives in north Seattle. She brought her 8-month-old baby and husband to city hall to testify one weekday morning.

A climate technology investor, Su spends her days contemplating terrifying climate data as well as new inventions she believes will help save us from it. Despite technological advances, she says trees still offer the best climate solutions.

A woman smiles next to a man holding a baby on a deck with trees in the background.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Susan Su, a climate technology investor who testified about the proposed tree ordinance update, with her family in Seattle.

“I don't want my child or my child's child or, you know, my child's friends' children or whoever to look back on my generation in anger and in spite and say, 'Why did they do this to us?' Because you know what? I sometimes think back to my parents' generation, and I think that of them,” Su said.

Housing developers say they've got the compromise they need. They agree with Strauss, that it will incentivize developers to retain more trees and they hope the full council will pass the current draft ordinance.

But other groups are asking "who this policy is really for?"

Several tree protection and neighborhood groups are appealing to council members for another delay. They’re asking for new amendments and exploring legal challenges. Among their claims is that the Urban Forestry Commission's recommendations were not fully integrated in the current draft, that the ordinance conflicts with Seattle's Green New Deal and that parts of it did not go through proper environmental review.

Decades of debate, then a rush of amendments

Back in south Seattle, Urban Forestry Commissioner Lia Hall was still collecting her thoughts the day after the city’s Land Use Committee approved the draft ordinance.

Standing near that patch of wetland forest in her neighborhood, speaking on her own behalf, she said she felt the whole process was too rushed. The volunteers on the Urban Forestry Commission called an emergency meeting, but time was limited. They focused on their most critical priorities, but there were many amendments they didn’t get to.

“I don't think that we were heard,” Hall said. “I want council members to really go to their constituents and find out what real people who are looking for housing, who need housing and find affordability an obstacle for them, I want them to get a sense of how they feel about the urban forest.”

Hall said preserving what’s already growing should be the priority, not creating a system of fees to replace and replant trees taken out by development.

“If that's all we have, we need it, but it's not going to have the same impact,” she said.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to