Seattle City Council passes stronger tree protection ordinance

May 24, 2023, 10:37 AM | Updated: 11:11 am

Seattle tree ordinance...

Lisa Ciecko, a Seattle Parks and Recreation plant ecologist, looks at a tree on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, in Seattle. Cities across the world have promised to plant more carbon-absorbing trees to help fight climate change. Research has shown the shade of mature trees also helps reduce unhealthful “heat islands,” especially in poor neighborhoods.(AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

(AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

The Seattle City Council has passed a new Tree Protection Ordinance. The ordinance aims to preserve and expand Seattle’s urban canopy while allowing for new construction.

“After half a decade of work, we have finally passed tree protections that will preserve, protect, and expand our urban tree canopy,” Councilmember Dan Strauss, chair of the Land Use Committee, said in a statement. “While some advocates in this debate have used trees as a proxy against density, other advocates sought no tree protection regulations because it adds cost to building housing. My aim was to pass a balanced bill that protects trees in our neighborhoods and during development while making space for the housing our city desperately needs.”

This legislation is the result of a multi-step process that began with Resolution 31902. The city council, mayor, and various departments worked together for years to get to this point. It now goes to the mayor’s desk for his signature.

“Trees are essential to the health, quality of life, and climate resilience of our communities,” said Mayor Bruce Harrell. “Under this strengthened Tree Ordinance, Seattle will increase protections for over 100,000 trees – and plant the seeds to grow thousands more in neighborhoods in need. This legislation takes a One Seattle approach to balance prioritizing tree canopy while also allowing for the development of needed housing – crucial for progress on climate goals, homelessness efforts, and housing affordability.”

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Proponents said the Tree Protection Ordinance attempts to establish clear and consistent parameters for tree protection standards in an effort to make tree removal and preservation decisions uniformly throughout the city.

“As an affordable homeownership developer, we know that trees and housing can co-exist,” Brett D’Antonio, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King County, said. “We applaud [the government] for working to add more trees to protected status, invest in increasing tree canopy in areas where it is lacking, and provide the certainty that affordable housing developers need.”

Specifics of the legislation include:

  • Expands protections to a total of 175,000 trees across the City; the previous code only protected approximately 17,700 trees.
  • Creates a 4-tier system to categorize our city’s trees and designate different protections for each tier. Heritage trees are tier 1 and removal is prohibited unless the tree is hazardous. This tiered system also expands the definition of “exceptional” trees so that 24’ trees are included; the previous requirement was 30’.
  • Establishes a new mandate requiring new developments to include street trees in their plans, helping to increase the overall tree canopy in our city while improving the quality of our urban environment.
  • Increases penalties for illegal street cutting.
  • Expands Seattle Public Utilities (SPU)’s Trees for Neighborhoods Program has already helped Seattleites plant over 13,400 trees in their yards and along the street.
  • Creates additional penalties for unregistered tree service providers performing commercial tree work, such as loss of a business license or significant fines.
  • Replaces trees on site if they’re removed for development or requires a fee be paid to plant and maintain trees in under-treed areas.
  • Increases street tree requirements for developments in neighborhood residential zones.
  • Addresses the lack of trees in historically underserved communities through the establishment of a payment in-lieu program that will help fund tree planting and maintenance programs around the city.
  • Significantly restricts tree removals on Neighborhood Residential lots:
    Near absolute restriction on the removal of Tier 1 (Heritage) Trees.
    Restricts the removal of all Tier 2 trees. Removal of a Tier 2 tree for any reason other than construction or safety is now prohibited.
    Lowers the size threshold for Tier 2 (currently Significant 12”–30”) trees from 30” to 24”.
    Lowers the number of Tier 3 (formerly Significant 6”) that can be removed from the original draft-Limit of 2 trees that can be removed to two trees every three years.

“One of the most important things we can do as a city to tackle the climate crisis is to have a healthy urban forest and provide urban housing at the same time, since both reduce carbon emissions,” Robert Cruickshank, Chair, Sierra Club Seattle, said. “We’re excited to celebrate Mayor Harrell and Councilmember Strauss successfully passing these reforms to provide that policy harmony for our environment and our future.”

The bill takes effect 60 days after the mayor signs it.

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Seattle City Council passes stronger tree protection ordinance