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Seattle, TreePAC prevail over Master Builders in tree protection ordinance legal skirmish

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.

Andrew Villeneuve

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