Can a Smart City Get Smart About Trees?

by Martha Baskin / February 24, 2020

Lede: Rapid residential development in Seattle, the nation’s top growing city, is resulting in the loss of thousands of mature trees. The Emerald City isn’t keeping track, but tree advocates are sounding the alarm. They’re calling for the city to update a tree protection ordinance last written in 2009. That was before trees were recognized for their ecosystem and public health benefits and as natural allies in a climate crisis. Can density and trees co-exist? Martha Baskin has the story. 

Narration: Annie Thoe knows this neighborhood of tall conifers and big leaf maple, well. Unlike much of the city, Victory Heights in NE Seattle, has a vital urban forest, groves of Doug firs and western hemlock, whose canopies clean the air and roots keep storm water from flooding into basements and waterways; where merlins, those fierce urban raptors, made a comeback and birds of all kinds find habitat. But it’s changing.

“We’re losing it really rapidly because of the rules in development, the lack of protection of trees.”

Over the last few years lots, some with groves of trees, others with one or two 100 year old trees, have been clear cut to build large homes. Thoe points to a lot where twenty-six trees were removed to build two mini-mansions.

“They’re 3000 or more square feet with a 500 square foot garage.”

Many were on the lots periphery, but city code allows developers to clear to the property lines and build for “development potential”.

Thoe, a renter, is all for density and affordable housing, but most residential development is market rate. Over the last ten years of rapid population growth and changes to zoning, existing tree protections are often ignored or disregarded. Thoe and others want the city council to update an eleven year old tree protection ordinance that recognizes the critical ecosystem and public health services mature trees provide, especially in a climate crisis. At a recent city council hearing, advocates lobbied for a draft written by the Urban Forestry Commission, a city advisory group. Josh Morris, a representative from Seattle Audubon, serves on the commission and testified at the hearing.

“ There’s tremendous public support to turn this around and myriad good reasons to do so. We can figure out how to be denser, more affordable, more equitable, resilient to climate change and leafy too.”

City Council Member Dan Strauss chairs the Land Use and Neighborhood Committee which handles trees and land use codes. Strauss is sympathetic to those trying to protect mature trees having watched the neighborhood where he grew up, Ballard,

“Literally bulldozed in front of me. There were some builders who protected trees and there were some that didn’t”.

Density and tree protection shouldn’t be at odds, he says.

“We need to have the density to create housing for all our new neighbors. We need to protect the trees that we have and we need to re-tree the parts of the city that are currently barren.” 

Back in the Victory Heights neighborhood, Mack Murphy, an architect, talks about the attempt he and several neighbors made to buy an adjacent double lot with 49 trees. They were outbid by a developer who’s preparing to build. Murphy admits protecting trees may make it more difficult and expensive, but it’s possible. He did an initial design,

“that had a little road that meandered  back into there and took advantage of the trees and it could have been lovely and a real asset to the city. Look at the light coming in off those trees right now”

Murphy is familiar with codes required before building which include rules to protect significant trees.

“but somehow they’re not enforced. It gets to some point in the system and then the system just seems to quit working…”

The Department of Construction and Inspection, DCI, is responsible for building permits and tree inspections on residential lots. Of 400 staff, it has two arborists. Chanda Emory, a DCI urban planner, says they’re working on recommendations made by the Urban Forestry Commission to expand the definition of exceptional trees

“and then looking into adding replacement requirements for significant tree removal”

The department is also considering modifying tree removal limits in single family zones. Their priorities are increasing canopy cover in historically underrepresented and low income area of the city.

Given the rapid loss of trees on residential lots under DCI, tree advocates argue tree inspections should be moved to the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, which oversees the Urban Forestry Commission. They want a moratorium on cutting trees over 24” inches in diameter and all large conifers. They’d also like the city’s Climate Action Plan to include strategies for mature tree retention and tax incentives for smaller homes that protect mature trees, among other recommendations.

Councilmember Strauss thinks it’s possible to pass a new tree ordinance within the next 9 to 12 months – September through December is consumed by the budget process – but first the whole city family, as he puts it, the Mayor, the Council, DCI and other stakeholders, need to be on board.

“At that point we can re-engage with advocates who should never stop advocating. Advocates absolutely need to keep advocating.” 

It’s likely something Annie Thoe and others trying to protect Seattle’s remaining residential mature trees, plan to do.

“It’s in our hands to protect our trees to treat them as something we need to steward.”

She pauses to listen to the wind in the conifers.

”Not just for ourselves but for our children and grandchildren and generations to come.”

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With engineering by Daniel Guenther, this is Martha Baskin. -0-

Martha Baskin

Martha is a freelance environment radio and print reporter. She covers a wide range of issues from endangered species, warming oceans, alternatives to fossil fuels, growing food in unlikely places, pollinators, and climate and environmental justice. She has been a contributor to Geekwire, Seattle Globalist, Truthout, the former Seattle Post-Globe, and Crosscut as well as several community radio stations.