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Seattle passes new tree ordinance amid calls to tweak legislation

Bellamy Pailthorp
A street tree in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood is protected from development on an adjacent lot.

Seattle has a new tree protection ordinance. The Seattle City Council passed a controversial update to the city's tree protection ordinance for trees on private property on Tuesday. The legislation passed by a 6 to 1 vote.

The vote proceeded despite a request to delay by the city-appointed Urban Forestry Commission and community groups. They wanted two more months to address concerns that the update favors developers and will lead to loss of the canopy.

Updating Seattle's tree protection ordinance has been in the works for more than 20 years. In that time, the city — and its housing needs — have changed dramatically.

In what has become a trees vs. housing debate, stakeholders on both sides submitted dozens of amendments to the proposed update. The legislation the council voted on is 62-pages long.

Councilmember Dan Strauss, who chairs the Land Use Committee, made passing a new tree protection ordinance a priority.

He recently told KNKX the legislation is "not exactly everything that everyone wants" but that it reflected "a good middle zone."

During Tuesday's council meeting, Strauss said the new code does balance the need for housing with the need for trees. He said although it still has some issues that the council should work on after passage, it will extend protections to tens of thousands of additional trees as soon as it goes into effect, in 60 days.

Strauss also said he was concerned that delaying could lead to a rush of tree cutting by property owners who don't want to deal with the new regulations. He called on his colleagues to pass the legislation now to provide better protections for the trees, sooner.

It worked. Several undecided councilmembers voted to approve the legislation with pledges to work on specific issues and amendments.

In 2007, the city set a goal of increasing its urban canopy to 30% coverage by 2037. Seattle is not alone in this pursuit, Tacoma aims to reach 30% canopy coverage by 2030.

Cities across the countryare seeking the benefits of urban trees which improve air quality, keep neighborhoods cooler and prevent erosion or flooding.

Yet it remains an uphill battle. Seattle's tree canopy actually shrunk by 255 acres in recent years.

Cara Kuhlman is KNKX's online managing editor. Prior to KNKX, she worked at Seattle-based technology and business news site GeekWire for six years. A University of Oregon graduate, she's also studied narrative nonfiction writing and journalism entrepreneurship.
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