Seattle's Tree Protection Ordinance

Background and rationale for proposed changes
With increasing development Seattle is losing its trees and tree canopy volume. While many other cities have updated their Tree Protection Ordinances to protect their trees and urban forest, Seattle has not. Seattle is not even enforcing its existing Tree Protection Ordinance, letting developers off the hook in most cases for replacing exceptional trees. Because Seattle has a complaint based system, rather than a permit system to track tree removal, property owners are also removing exceptional trees illegally.

Ten years ago the Seattle City Council recommended its Tree Protection Ordinance be updated. A recent internal city report noted that

the existing ordinance is not working. Big trees are being removed and replaced with small trees. Conifers are being removed and replaced with deciduous trees.

The Seattle Urban Forestry Commission has been making recommendations to the Mayor and Seattle City Council for the last 10 years. In April when the Seattle City Council passed the Mandatory Housing Affordability Ordinance, they passed an accompanying resolution detailing 8 areas that should be considered in an updated tree ordinance. In June the Seattle Urban Forestry Commission provided the Seattle City Council with a revised draft of the Council’s most recent proposal from last year.

Major provisions of UFC draft Tree Ordinance explained

  1. Expand the existing tree removal and replacement permit program, including 2-week public notice and posting, as used by the Seattle Department of transportation (SDOT) – to cover all trees 6” DBH and larger on private property in all land use zones, both during development and outside development.

Seattle currently has a complaint based system to monitor tree removal. It doesn’t work because people only know a tree is being cut down when they hear the chain saw. Many trees are removed illegally. Exceptional trees on private property as defined by Director’s Rule 16-2008 are not to be removed unless hazardous. The first sign a tree is being removed is usually hearing a chain saw  or seeing the tree gone when they pass by. Many other cities like Portland,OR; Atlanta, GA: Vancouver,BC and locally Sammamish, Shoreline, Mercer Island, Redmond, Lake Forest Park and and Bellevue all require permits before trees can be removed.

  1. Require the replacement of all trees removed that are 6” DBH and larger with trees that in 25 years will reach equivalent canopy volume – either on site or pay an in-lieu fee into a City Tree Replacement and Preservation Fund. Allow the Fund to also accept fines, donations, grants and set up easements.

Many cities require tree replacement when trees are removed. If trees are not replaced you are losing canopy.
Seattle’s Tree Protection ordinance passed in 2001 actually says in SMC 25.11.090 that exceptional trees and trees over 24″  DBH  are to be replaced if removed from a property being developed.
The city has not kept a record of trees removed or replaced pursuant to this ordinance nor is there any record of developers paying the city to plant trees elsewhere. The city does has not been enforcing this part of the ordinance.

  1. Retain current protections for Exceptional Trees and reduce the upper threshold for exceptional trees to 24” DBH, protect tree groves and prohibit trees over 6”DBH being removed on undeveloped lots.

There are about 6100 large exceptional trees left in Seattle according to the 2016 Seattle Tree Canopy Assessment. These are trees over 30″ DBH and up to 140 feet tall and probably 100 years old or more. They are the survivors and provide the most ecological services to the city. They include Douglas fir and western red cedar and Big leaf maples. Reducing the diameter to 24″ DBH will protect more of these large trees that have lived longer than most people in the city, and will be impossible to replace in our, or our children’s, lifetime.

  1. Allow removal of no more than 2  significant non-exceptional trees in 3 years per lot outside development

Seattle currently allows the removal outside development of 3 significant (> 6″DBH) trees that are not exceptional per year. This can quickly remove all trees on a lot. A number of other cites have lower numbers and limit it even more over a longer time period. Renton limits it to 2 in 1 year and 4 in 5 years as an example.

  1. Establish one citywide database for applying for tree removal and replacement permits and to track changes in the tree canopy.  Post online all permit requests and permit approvals for public viewing.

The database system was recommended in the 2017 Tree Regulations Research Project report. Mayor Burgess, in his 2017 Tree Protection Executive order, directed it to be set up to track tree loss and replacement

  1. Expand SDOT’s existing tree service provider’s registration and certification to include all tree service providers working on trees in Seattle.

SDOT has already set up a a system to register and certify tree service providers and this would extend it to all that work on trees on private property.Providers would have to sign a statement that they have read the tree regulations and understand what is required.

  1. Provide adequate funding in the budget to implement and enforce the updated ordinance.

DCI claims to be understaffed regarding tree protection functions that include monitoring tree related issues and checking compliance with existing regulations, site inspections etc. This funding will be required to implement and better enforce the existing and updated ordinance.