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Tacoma's rezoning efforts aim to increase density while preserving trees

A crew from the Tacoma Tree Foundation planted two trees in front of this house in the Tacoma Mall neighborhood on Veterans Day during the Branch Out event.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Volunteers with the Tacoma Tree Foundation plant two trees in front of a house in the Tacoma Mall neighborhood during a 2022 Branch Out event. The city has a goal to reach 30% canopy coverage by 2030.

The City of Tacoma is considering new zoning to increase density and create more mid-range housing options, such as duplexes and small apartment blocks. It’s an effort to expand affordable options in more than half of the city, as Tacoma braces itself for an expected influx of about 127,000 new residents by 2040 – an increase of more than 50% from 2021.

The planning for this started four years ago before the state passed a law for middle housing. Called “Home in Tacoma,” the proposal would eliminate single-family zones.

After it went out for public comment in 2021, feedback was clear: Tacomans told city officials that more housing and density should not lead to the loss of tree canopy. So, the planners created a proposal called ‘Home in Tacoma – Phase 2’ that not only encourages more housing but also requires tree preservation or planting at the same time.

Elliott Barnett is a senior planner and project lead for Home in Tacoma. He acknowledged Tacoma has had a longstanding goal of increasing its canopy, to cover 30% of the city. Because it remains at only 20 or 22%, Barnett said the planners added tree protections on private property as part of the deal.

“We have put together a package that is also a pretty big move in terms of promoting those tree goals,” he said. “So when you build in some of the new zones now, you'll be actually required to put in some trees along with your with your new housing. And in addition, trees over a certain size will get protected and can only be cut down if they’re really in the way and make it not feasible to use the property.”

“And ultimately, it's going to be about balance; we do want to see the housing get built. But we think that the package we put together, we can have both, we can get housing and trees,” Barnett said.

If adopted by the city council this summer, it would be the first time that Tacoma has protected trees on residential properties. Barnett said the new zoning would also lift some parking requirements for developers and allow more commercial use and business activity in denser areas.

Lowell Wyse, executive director of the Tacoma Tree Foundation, said people’s concerns that new construction would lead to canopy loss need to be taken seriously.

“Because the city has had a goal of expanding the tree canopy for about 15 years. And they haven't made any progress in doing that.” Wyse said.

Wyse said the best place to increase Tacoma’s tree cover is in people’s backyards. Without any new protection, they could easily be filled in with low-cost housing and no regard for tree cover. With the new codes as they stand, the canopy could get a boost.

“If this goes through, developers will have to present the plan for how they're going to maintain a 30% average tree canopy on residential lots. And when there are tree removals, there will be a cost to doing that,” he said. If trees are removed, developers will be required to either replant or cover the cost of replacing them.

Wyse said if Tacoma moves ahead with this proposal, it will be the first city in the state to enact a housing policy and tree policy at the same time. And he’s pleased with the general philosophy of the Home in Tacoma proposal, but said he’s still studying the fine print to see how effective the overall policy will be.

One concern is whether the city will be too liberal with the exceptions or ‘variances’ it allows when someone argues they should be allowed to remove a tree. Another is whether Tacoma will devote enough resources to enforcement to prevent illegal removals and to make sure that trees planted as replacements are protected to ensure their survival to maturity.

The city is accepting public comments on the proposed plan through March 8. A public hearing before the Tacoma planning commission takes place on March 6 at 5:30 p.m. There are also several in-person informational events through March 2; details on those meetings are listed on the city’s website.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Corrected: February 29, 2024 at 5:02 PM PST
Updated to correct that the March 6th public hearing is before Tacoma's planning commission, not its city council.
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