New rules intended to protect Seattle’s tree canopy will go into effect next month, requiring private tree service providers to register with the city and post public notices before major tree pruning and removal.

The new rules, passed by the Seattle City Council in March, are intended to be a stopgap while city officials work on larger tree protection legislation, said Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who sponsored the ordinance.

Most tree species in Seattle have long been designated as “exceptional” and protected by code if they’re over 30 inches wide, though some species are “exceptional” at smaller widths. In most cases, it’s illegal to cut down, damage or remove the tops of trees that meet that criteria, according to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.

But Pedersen said that despite those regulations, residents frequently report people in unmarked vehicles with covered license plates cutting down large trees on private land in the dark of night, sometimes before a sale to a developer. In some particularly egregious examples, homeowners have removed publicly owned trees to improve their own views.

The new ordinance is intended to put an end to the “Wild West” of tree cutting by creating a publicly accessible database residents can check when tree work is being done in their neighborhood, Pedersen said.

All private tree service companies must register with the city by Nov. 10. They’ll need to post major tree-pruning and removal efforts to the database at least three days before starting work.

Advertising

The stopgap measure comes as Seattle leaders and advocates debate a draft of a tree protection ordinance, released in February after nearly three years, that proposes the city expand the definition of “exceptional” or protected trees to include those with diameters 24 inches or larger.

The draft legislation would help Seattle meet its 2007 goal of increasing the city’s tree canopy to 30% by 2037. Seattle had roughly 28.1% tree coverage, or 15,024 acres, in 2021.

Recent research by the city’s Urban Forestry Commission shows the tree canopy in Seattle decreased by 1.7% — or about 255 acres, approximately the size of Green Lake — between 2016 and 2021.

Trees are important for climate change resiliency, taking in stormwater during heavy rain, absorbing pollutants and cooling neighborhoods and buildings, according to the commission.

But those benefits are not equally distributed across the city, and poorer neighborhoods often have less tree canopy, creating heat islands.

The difference in tree canopy in Seattle’s hottest and coolest neighborhoods can amount to a difference of nearly 14.5 degrees, according to a 2019 NPR analysis of surface thermal data from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Advertising

An 98.1-degree day in the Georgetown neighborhood, where the median household income is about $52,000, would be an 84.4-degree day in Magnolia, where the median household income is about $217,900, according to NPR.

Pedersen said he expects fellow Councilmember Dan Strauss, chair of the council’s land-use committee, to introduce the larger bill sometime next year. Many details, like whether developers should have to replace trees or pay fines for removing large trees, are still being discussed, Pedersen said.

The larger bill was delayed by an appeal from the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish County, which argued in part that the law would prevent developers from building dense housing. The Seattle Hearing Examiner rejected that appeal in August.