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.