Seattle skyline framed by trees
Seattle skyline framed by trees (Photo: Jerry Meaden, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

A long over­due update to the City of Seat­tle’s tree pro­tec­tion ordi­nance looks like it could begin mov­ing for­ward again soon, thanks to a just pub­lished rul­ing by Seat­tle Hear­ing Exam­in­er Ryan Van­cil. Van­cil reject­ed a chal­lenge brought many months ago by the Mas­ter Builders of King and Sno­homish coun­ties to the city’s deter­mi­na­tion that an update of its tree pro­tec­tion ordi­nance would not have prob­a­ble sig­nif­i­cant adverse impacts on the environment. 

The rul­ing is a sig­nif­i­cant vic­to­ry for the City of Seat­tle and TreeP­AC, which respond­ed to the Mas­ter Builders’ chal­lenge as an intervenor.

“Appel­lants’ argu­ments that the Pro­pos­al [which has not been vot­ed upon] will increase the costs of devel­op­ment, and will have neg­a­tive impacts on the City hous­ing sup­ply were based on spec­u­la­tion, not any actu­al quan­ti­ta­tive analy­sis that was intro­duced into evi­dence,” Van­cil wrote in his deci­sion.

“Appel­lants’ case focused on the cur­rent state of City tree reg­u­la­tions and their impact on devel­op­ment. Appel­lants did not intro­duce ade­quate analy­sis demon­strat­ing the like­li­hood that cur­rent cir­cum­stances will be exac­er­bat­ed by the Pro­pos­al to such a degree as to cause sig­nif­i­cant adverse impacts.”

“Appel­lants’ expressed con­cern that devel­op­ment will be more expen­sive, uncer­tain, and prob­lem­at­ic on some uniden­ti­fied num­ber of lots is not enough to demon­strate that the Pro­pos­al will like­ly have sig­nif­i­cant adverse impacts to future hous­ing in the City,” Van­cil’s order dis­miss­ing the chal­lenge added.

“We appre­ci­ate the Hear­ing Exam­in­er’s rea­soned and detailed deci­sion,” said TreeP­AC Chair Steve Zemke, an NPI Advi­so­ry Coun­cilmem­ber. “Trees are crit­i­cal to main­tain­ing the health and vital­i­ty of Seat­tle’s com­mu­ni­ties and its cit­i­zens.  TreeP­AC sup­ports the efforts of the city to both increase need­ed hous­ing and pro­tect our green infra­struc­ture. It is not an either/or sit­u­a­tion but a pri­or­i­ty of the city to address both as man­dat­ed in Seat­tle’s cur­rent Com­pre­hen­sive Plan.”

“Trees are crit­i­cal to deal­ing with urban heat island impacts and stormwa­ter runoff as the cli­mate cri­sis con­tin­ues. That requires pro­tect­ing as many exist­ing trees as pos­si­ble and plant­i­ng more trees in mar­gin­al­ized areas for tree equi­ty and social jus­tice. The pro­posed draft ordi­nance update helps the city to do that.”

“I am very pleased that the City Hear­ing Exam­in­er reject­ed the appeal by some real estate devel­op­ers that, unfor­tu­nate­ly, result­ed in yet anoth­er delay in our efforts to strength­en Seattle’s tree pro­tec­tion ordi­nance,” said Seat­tle City Coun­cilmem­ber Alex Ped­er­sen in a news release laud­ing the decision.

“We already know trees pro­vide numer­ous pub­lic health and envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits, which include reduc­ing the harm­ful heat island impacts of cli­mate [dam­age],” Ped­er­sen con­tin­ued. “More trees need to be pro­tect­ed and plant­ed now, espe­cial­ly in low income com­mu­ni­ties. I look for­ward to work­ing with the Urban Forestry Com­mis­sion and oth­er stake­hold­ers to final­ly imple­ment an effec­tive tree ordi­nance for our ‘Emer­ald City.’”

“We have the abil­i­ty to pro­tect trees and cre­ate the space for the den­si­ty our city des­per­ate­ly needs. To become a mod­ern, cli­mate resilient city we need to allow builders to cre­ate the den­si­ty our city needs and to pro­tect and grow our tree canopy,” said Ped­er­sen’s col­league Dan Strauss.

NPI’s research found last year that a range of ideas for pro­tect­ing trees are over­whelm­ing­ly pop­u­lar with Seat­tle vot­ers. Every idea test­ed received an enthu­si­as­tic response from respon­dents. One of those ideas — requir­ing tree care providers to reg­is­ter with the city — was turned into an ordi­nance ear­li­er this year by the City Coun­cil. But the Coun­cil has yet to send May­or Bruce Har­rell a com­pre­hen­sive update of the city’s tree pro­tec­tion ordinance.

Now that this chal­lenge from the Mas­ter Builders has been tossed, the work of draft­ing the updat­ed tree pro­tec­tion ordi­nance can get back on track.

Here’s a sum­ma­ry of a few of the ideas we test­ed last year, work­ing with TreeP­AC, that Seat­tleites favor includ­ing in the updat­ed ordi­nance the Coun­cil adopts:

  • Increas­ing pro­tec­tions for sig­nif­i­cant and excep­tion­al (large) trees
  • Adding replace­ment require­ments for sig­nif­i­cant and excep­tion­al tree removal
  • Cre­at­ing a city tree plant­i­ng and preser­va­tion fund
  • Cre­at­ing a per­mit­ting process for removal of sig­nif­i­cant trees (trees greater than six inch­es in diam­e­ter at four and a half feet high)

Sup­port ranged from 78% for the first idea list­ed above to 57% for the last idea list­ed above. Oppo­si­tion ranged from 13% to 28%.

The Seat­tle Times edi­to­r­i­al board sub­se­quent­ly cit­ed our find­ings in an edi­to­r­i­al urg­ing the City Coun­cil to get rolling on strength­en­ing tree pro­tec­tions.

Today, we can say there’s one less obsta­cle to that happening.

This is good news for the peo­ple of Seat­tle and the urban forests that the Emer­ald City needs for an equi­table, cli­mate resilient future.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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