On a stroll through my West Seattle neighborhood the other week, I noticed a yellow government sign stapled to a leafy, 40-foot tree along the street. The Seattle Department of Transportation announced a pending application to remove the tree for sidewalk repair.
I called the SDOT number listed and left a message, noting that if SDOT allowed every tree cracking a sidewalk to be cut, there wouldn’t be many big trees left. I never heard back. Next time I walked by, the tree was reduced to a pile of wood chips. I contacted SDOT again and wondered why it bothered to ask for comment if it didn’t reply. Nobody responded to that voicemail, either.
“I think your experience of reaching out and not hearing back is probably the norm,” said Joshua Morris, co-chair of the Urban Forestry Commission, whose 13 members advise the Seattle City Council and mayor on protection, conservation and management. “It’s just another kind of indicator that we’re not fully valuing Seattle’s trees commensurate with the level of benefits they provide us.”
So it goes with preserving and planting trees in Seattle. Despite our fleece-wearing, NPR-listening, Subaru-driving environmental vibe, developing a workable policy around trees has proved all but impossible.
Now, 13 years after the city adopted “interim” tree regulations, City Hall and activists are gearing up for another round of policy debates that could finally result in updated tree preservation and protection laws.
As always, the argument revolves around two competing values: saving and growing trees, and building more houses. In this seemingly implacable dilemma, there just might be an opportunity to do both.
Tree protection in Seattle is insanely complicated. Nine city departments have a role in managing the urban forests. Trees in parks, along sidewalks, under power lines and growing on private property are handled differently.
In 2007, the Urban Forest Management Plan established a goal of increasing Seattle’s tree canopy to 30% from about 28% by 2037. Over the years, two city-funded public information campaigns encouraged tree preservation, but council members have been unable to update tree regulations on private property since 2009.
It’s difficult to know how many trees are out there. There is no central database. A property owner can cut down three trees each year. Most trees with trunks over 30 inches in diameter are considered exceptional and have special rules to remove.
Lowering the size threshold for exceptional trees to 24 inches of trunk diameter, allowing developers to pay into a fund to plant trees elsewhere instead of on-site, and requiring developers to replace smaller trees are all part of the latest proposed update of Seattle’s tree-protection code, unveiled by the Harrell administration earlier this year.
The Urban Forestry Commission believes the draft ordinance is inadequate and more regulations are needed.
Some developers think it goes too far.
In March, the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish County and a handful of developers challenged the draft to the city Office of Hearing Examiner, contending the proposed rules “sacrifice” their ability to build affordable housing by protecting trees and “establishing stringent regulations on the removal of far more trees and in other ways making development more expensive, uncertain, and problematic.”
On Aug. 10, the Hearing Examiner rejected the Master Builders appeal. The draft ordinance now heads to the City Council, where it will be hashed out in the coming months.
Aliesha Ruiz, the Master Builder’s Seattle government affairs manager, said they “plan on working closely with the council on producing balanced legislation that supports both trees and housing.”
The Master Builders have proved feisty about tree protections. This spring, they filed an appeal to the Growth Management Hearings Board challenging Kirkland’s adopted tree protection ordinance. Again, the advocacy group contended tree protection made it harder to build affordable homes.
Asked if they would consider future legal actions to challenge whatever tree regulations finally passed in Seattle, Ruiz said they haven’t made any decisions or ruled out any option.
To make progress here, it’s past time to keep the legal guns in their holsters.
Councilmember Dan Strauss, who chairs the Land Use Committee, said advocates and developers will get some of what they want. “I’m here to take a balanced approach to make sure we are able to protect our trees and create the density that we have to have for our city.”
The region’s record-breaking heat adds urgency to the debate. Areas with fewer trees retain higher temperatures than neighborhoods with leafy canopies. Lower-income communities have fewer trees than affluent places. Trees aren’t just an aesthetic benefit. In heat domes, they became a matter of life and death.
The record-setting heat wave in 2021 killed more than 30 people in King County, the deadliest climate-related event in the region’s history.
This may be the recognition needed to bring a new tree protection package over the finish line in seemingly progressive Seattle.
The City Council — seven of whom are up for reelection next year — needs a win. Strauss said he is “100%” certain he can get something passed, even if it’s in chunks, and won’t make everyone happy.
Despite the laborious council process and threat of appeals, is there a way out of the housing versus trees paradigm? Morris, of the Urban Forestry Commission, says a solution is doable.
“We’ve been having these conversations for so long. A lot of it, we should have worked out by now. But the path forward should at least be a little less rocky,” he said.
Morris did some research on the tree I asked SDOT about. Turns out, it was a tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), regarded as an invasive species and noxious weed.
I never thought a tree could also be a weed, but there you have it. City paperwork noted that another tree should be planted in the same spot within a year. It will likely be decades before a new tree is the same height.
By that time, let’s hope that its canopy will be part of a thriving urban forest, a place for shade and comfort for those living in Seattle now, and residents yet to arrive.