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

This week, the non­prof­it Inves­ti­gateWest pub­lished a lengthy expose that doc­u­ments how the Mas­ter Builders influ­enced the draft­ing and devel­op­ment of Seat­tle’s lat­est tree ordi­nance, which was recent­ly approved by the Seat­tle City Coun­cil at the request of May­or Bruce Har­rel­l’s administration.

Writ­ten by reporter Eric Scigliano, the well researched piece dis­cuss­es key aspects of the new ordi­nance in depth, as well as relay­ing the details of a cel­e­bra­to­ry event after the mea­sure passed, where the Mas­ter Builders hand­ed out awards to cel­e­brate get­ting what they want­ed out of the city. Here’s Scigliano’s opening:

On June 1, the mood was exu­ber­ant at Art Mar­ble 21, a sun­lit Seat­tle bar and meet­ing space. The event was the annu­al “mix­er” of the Seat­tle Builders Coun­cil, a divi­sion of the Mas­ter Builders Asso­ci­a­tion of King and Sno­homish Coun­ties (MBAKS), “the nation’s old­est and largest local home­builders association.”

But the occa­sion was not just social.

Nine days ear­li­er, in a 6–1 vote, the City Coun­cil had passed a long-sought, hard-fought tree pro­tec­tion ordi­nance opposed by many tree-pro­tec­tion advo­cates, neigh­bor­hood groups and the city’s own Her­itage Tree Com­mit­tee. Some oppo­nents denounced it as a “cor­rupt” give­away to devel­op­ers and a death knell for Seattle’s declin­ing urban for­est. The city’s Urban Forestry Com­mis­sion, an expert pan­el charged with advis­ing on tree pol­i­cy and reg­u­la­tions, unsuc­cess­ful­ly plead­ed to delay the vote a month so it could study the ordi­nance it com­plained it hadn’t been giv­en time to review.

The forestry com­mis­sion­ers didn’t make the mixer’s invi­ta­tion list, which includ­ed not just builders but Seat­tle City Coun­cil mem­bers and staff and offi­cials from the Mayor’s Office, City Attor­neys’ Office, Depart­ment of Con­struc­tion and Inspec­tions (SDCI), and oth­er city agencies.

Scigliano, though, was able to get in, and he wit­nessed what was said.

Aliesha Ruiz, the association’s gov­ern­ment affairs man­ag­er, dis­pensed the awards with effu­sive expres­sions of affec­tion for col­leagues and city offi­cials alike, espe­cial­ly for some­one who’d been both: Mar­co Lowe, the city’s chief oper­at­ing offi­cer and May­or Bruce Harrell’s point man on hous­ing and land use, who had last held Ruiz’s job at the Mas­ter Builders.

“It’s been a long, long effort to get this leg­is­la­tion passed,” Ruiz declared. “We don’t love it —”

“Yes, we do!” a voice called out.

“We didn’t get every­thing we want­ed,” Ruiz con­tin­ued, “but it strikes a bal­ance for hous­ing and for trees.” She turned to the tree tro­phies: “These come all the way from Romania!”

“No Seat­tle trees were killed,” quipped Lowe, to loud laughter.

Ruiz bestowed tro­phies on the Mas­ter Builders offi­cers and attor­neys and city bureau­crats who’d helped shape the ordinance.

She espe­cial­ly laud­ed the Seat­tle Builders Council’s vice chair­man: “For those of you who don’t know, the 85 per­cent capac­i­ty test was Michael Pollard’s brain­child!” This key pro­vi­sion, which one vet­er­an envi­ron­men­tal lawyer calls “the sin­gle most dam­ag­ing change to the orig­i­nal draft ordi­nance,” guar­an­tees builders in low-rise mul­ti­fam­i­ly zones (allow­ing town­hous­es and small apart­ments) the right to cov­er 85 per­cent of their lots with build­ings and oth­er hard­scape, regard­less of what trees grow there.

“Don’t you have to cut down a for­est to win one of these?” some­one called from the crowd, to more laughter.

We live in a time of record heat, ram­pant defor­esta­tion, and extreme weath­er. That does­n’t seem to mat­ter to these folks. Tree loss and cli­mate dam­age are viewed as fod­der for jokes rather than as the very seri­ous prob­lems that they are. Noth­ing must get in the way of their agen­da of build­ing what they want, when they want, where they want, with as few restric­tions as possible.

Seat­tle and near­by com­mu­ni­ties do des­per­ate­ly need more attain­able and afford­able hous­ing. But our region also des­per­ate­ly needs urban forests.

Trees are not a nice to have. They are not a lux­u­ry. They are not an obsta­cle to devel­op­ment. They are essen­tial. Our new­ly housed neigh­bors deserve to live in neigh­bor­hoods with trees. They pro­vide shade, habi­tat, and pro­tec­tion from noise pol­lu­tion. But they’re unfor­tu­nate­ly not seen by most devel­op­ers as the cru­cial assets that they are. Not yet, any­way. That needs to change.

The recent tree ordi­nance adopt­ed by the city does, as Scigliano explained, make it hard­er to sim­ply chop down trees on already-devel­oped parcels. But the lot cov­er­age rule is a huge give­away to devel­op­ers who don’t care about cli­mate jus­tice or val­ue trees. They want to be able to raze lots rather than to thought­ful­ly design prop­er­ties that retain exist­ing mature trees as part of the design.

Builders can now remove even the biggest trees to get their allot­ted cov­er­age, aside from about 320 land­mark “her­itage trees” des­ig­nat­ed under a pri­or vol­un­tary pro­gram. Urban Forestry Com­mis­sion co-chair Josh Mor­ris warns that peo­ple shouldn’t “get the idea this pro­vides pro­tec­tion for a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of trees.”

By con­trast, own­ers who aren’t rede­vel­op­ing their prop­er­ty come under much stricter reg­u­la­tion than before: They can’t cut trees thick­er than 12 inch­es that aren’t haz­ardous, and they can only remove two 6 to 12-inch trees every three years.

Before, devel­op­ers would some­times demand that home­own­ers, who faced less legal scruti­ny, cut down trees before clos­ing pur­chas­es. Now the only way for home­own­ers to get rid of unwant­ed trees may be to sell to developers.

The ordi­nance includes a stinger for neigh­bors and activists oppos­ing tree removals, and a boon to devel­op­ers who resent such inter­fer­ence: They’ll no longer be able to appeal to the hear­ing exam­in­er. SDCI’s deci­sions will be final.

We are fac­ing a future of hot­ter sum­mers, worse droughts, and more intense heat waves — and not decades from now, but this decade. The cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe is already here, and we are not ready for it. We’ve talked about get­ting ready, but haven’t tak­en very much action. We can set all of the tar­gets and objec­tives we like, but they will not be attain­able unless we have strate­gies to get there.

Promis­es to devel­op such strate­gies lat­er are worth­less — we need them now.

Seat­tle’s amend­ed tree code has some new pro­vi­sions that are good, but it could be much bet­ter. Three con­sec­u­tive city­wide polls com­mis­sioned by NPI of Seat­tle vot­ers have found strong sup­port for a wide array of poli­cies to pro­tect trees.

A super­ma­jor­i­ty of vot­ers sur­veyed by our poll­ster back in Jan­u­ary told us they’re con­cerned about tree and canopy loss in their neigh­bor­hood and the city as hous­ing den­si­ty increas­es to meet Seattle’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

“The may­or and Coun­cilmem­ber Strauss are to be com­mend­ed for putting a plan on a table,” I wrote in March. “But it needs strength­en­ing. Canopy loss is going to con­tin­ue unless the city gets seri­ous about pro­tect­ing its exist­ing trees… not just col­lect­ing mon­ey when a devel­op­er or landown­er wants to chop trees down, and not just plant­i­ng new trees that will take decades to reach maturity.”

Regret­tably, the ordi­nance was not strength­ened before it was sent to Har­rell. Strauss, who over­saw the draft­ing as the rel­e­vant com­mit­tee chair, refused to con­sid­er a num­ber of amend­ments that would have made it a lot bet­ter. It seems like it will be up to the next city coun­cil that the vot­ers elect to course correct.

Next time, the city coun­cil and May­or Har­rel­l’s office need to let their own Urban Forestry Com­mis­sion do the dri­ving, rather than the Mas­ter Builders, who have demon­strat­ed they want poli­cies that serve their inter­ests rather than the public’s.

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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