Johnson proposes revision to tree protection ordinance

Council member Rob Johnson has produced an early draft of a bill that rewrites the city’s tree protection ordinance, scrapping its most cumbersome provision and replacing it with a new (but still somewhat cumbersome) one.

The tree rules in Seattle are complicated. There is one set for Environmentally Critical Areas, another for Shoreline Areas, a third for “street trees,” and a fourth for trees on private property. Johnson’s bill only deals with the fourth category: those on private property.

The current rules say:

  • A property owner may not cut down an “exceptional tree” (those designated as heritage trees by the city, or those that are rare or exceptional by virtue of their size, species, condition, cultural/historic importance, and/or contribution as part of a grove of trees) on developed lowrise, midrise, commercial, and single-family lots 5000 square feet or larger unless the tree is found to be hazardous;
  • No more than three non-exceptional trees six inches in diameter or wider may be cut down on those lots in any one-year period;
  • No trees six inches or diameter or greater may be removed on undeveloped lots unless they are found to be hazardous;
  • A special set of rules apply during a development project, in which exceptions are made when tree restrictions prevent the full development potential of the lots from being realized, but mitigation or replacement may be required.

The “exceptional tree” rule has been problematic, not only because it’s a subjective standard and “administratively complex,” but because if a property owner can convince a private certified arborist to declare a tree “hazardous” then it can still be removed. Johnson said that he has heard complaints that people are gaming the system by talking with multiple arborists until one says what they want to hear, in order to skirt around the tree protection rules.

The newly-proposed ordinance does away with the notion of an “exceptional tree,” and replaces it with a “significant tree,” one that is six inches in diameter or wider. All significant trees — on all private property, regardless of the zone — require a permit to remove.

Seattle has a goal of 30% tree canopy coverage city-wide; currently it’s at 28%. But those trees are not distributed evenly across all property zones; 63% are on single-family zoned property, and 22% are on “right of way” (mostly “street trees” in the planting strips between the sidewalk and the street).  Because of this, the city has established canopy coverage requirements for different types of zones, and  prioritized canopy in single-family zones.

Land Use Type Canopy coverage requirement
Single-family lots 33%
Multifamily 20%
Commercial/Mixed Use 15%
Downtown 12%
Industrial 10%
Institutional 20%
Rights-of-Way 24%

The kind of permit that is required to remove a significant tree is determined by the current canopy coverage on the lot as compared to the requirement. If removing a significant tree would put the lot under the requirement, then it requires a “major permit.” If it doesn’t, then it’s a “minor permit.” Minor permits are generally granted. Major permits not associated with development activity, however, require an approved tree replacement plan that maintains the tree canopy coverage at or above the requirement.

Applications for both types of permits require a fair amount of paperwork. For a minor permit, applicants must provide a general site plan showing:

  1. nearby structures and trees;
  2. the location of tree(s) to be removed;
  3. locations of other significant trees on site that are to be preserved;
  4. location of critical areas or buffers;
  5. the tree replacement plan;
  6. authorization for SDCI’s arborist to access the site to evaluate the replacement plan.

For a major permit, the applicant must include:

  1. a site map to scale, depicting accurate location of site features, including buildings, driveways, environmentally critical areas and buffers, forest stands or open-grown single or clusters of significant trees, the “critical root zone” of the tree(s) to be removed along with nearby trees (including off-site) that may be impacted by removal;
  2. a tree inventory and assessment report prepared by a qualified arborist;
  3. a report including the tree species and diameter for each significant tree, the condition/health of each tree, existing and proposed canopy coverage, and design of a land use proposal that prioritizes preserving healthy significant trees.

In the case of both major and minor permits, the application must be posted on site, at a place where it can be read from the nearest public street. Minor permit applications must be posted for at least two full business days, and major permit applications for a minimum of 14 full calendar days prior to the permit decision.

There are some exemptions to the permit process.:

  • emergency activities necessary to remedy an immediate threat to people, structures or public health or safety;
  • tree work done by Seattle City Light to maintain power lines; and
  • normal and routine pruning and maintenance.

The proposed ordinance has a provision for replacing a tree off-site, or for making a payment in-lieu into a city-controlled fund instead of planting a replacement tree.

The bill requires any person or company that participates in tree work to register with the city, in the process acknowledging that they are familiar with the city’s tree protection rules.

The ordinance also increases the penalties — both civil and criminal — for violating the tree protection rules. It allows the city to assess a civil fine of $1500 per diameter-inch for a tree illegally removed (and $45,000 if the tree has been removed from the site so it can’t be measured). It also allows for a criminal penalty for failing to comply with an order by the SDCI Director related to tree removal of $1000 and up to 90 days imprisonment.

One of Johnson’s goals for the rewrite is to improve the customer-service for applicants by simplifying the rules. And yet, the new ordinance replaces the “exceptional tree” bureaucracy with a  new permit system bureaucracy that will affect more trees and more owners than the old rules — even if the rules are easier to understand.

The new ordinance is subject to review under the State Environmental Protection Act, and the city is working on that process right now. Johnson has scheduled a public hearing on the bill for September 5, and unless the SEPA review is appealed (and there’s a good chance it will) the bill should advance through the legislative process this fall.

Johnson has emphasized that this is a “working draft” bill and could undergo substantial changes before it’s done. That’s almost certainly true; there are big holes that still need to be filled. For example, the ordinance doesn’t say what happens when a tree-removal permit is submitted for a lot that is already below the tree-canopy requirement. It also doesn’t specify the permit fees, or how long the city can take to issue or deny a permit.


One comment

  1. Failing to include impacts on ROW (street) trees from development on private property is a huge gap (a combination of your third and fourth categories). Numerous losses of large street trees are due to manipulation of review in the permitting of medium to large projects, and the failure of the City to prioritize conservation of tree canopy in that process.

    Important background: The City’s own review documented how badly the City’s current ordinances are at protecting trees and canopy. Some info: (Presentation to Urban Forestry Commission, November 1, 2017) (written report, March 31, 2017)

    The loss of protection of large native conifers—doug firs and western red cedars—it also troublesome. These and other “exceptional” trees provide large benefits that are not replaced by new smaller deciduous trees.

    It’s hard to figure out how the Council can prepare an accurate SEPA checklist and threshold determination before the specifics of the proposal are ironed out. In addition, it would be very helpful if the Council, led by PLUZ committee chair Johnson, would work more closely with the UFC, which has been working on the issue for many years. UFC archives are here:

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