Seattle City Council passes tree ordinance, after years of debate

Seattle City Council passed a sweeping tree ordinance Tuesday that will regulate and protect tens of thousands more trees and create new requirements for replacing those that are cut down.

After more than an hour of public comment with arborists, residents and builders testifying for and against the bill, Seattle council members passed the ordinance 6-1. Councilmember Alex Pedersen voted against it.

Several council members said while the ordinance is not perfect, the bill is better than the current code and that they intend to keep working to improve the law before it is implemented in 60 days.

“This is a very hard vote for me,” said Councilmember Tammy Morales, saying many of her constituents feel they did not get a sufficient chance to weigh in.

Though council members disagree on whether the tree ordinance sufficiently protects trees versus regulating them, the new ordinance will affect between 88,100 and 175,000 trees, far more than the 17,700 protected under the current code.

The ordinance has been years in the making, as the issues of housing affordability and climate resiliency butt heads.

While rules for a tree depend on zoning and the tree’s size, broadly the new ordinance expands protections to trees 24 inches in diameter or wider and creates new designations and rules for smaller trees.

The ordinance dictates any felled tree more than a foot wide must be replaced by one or more new trees and must eventually produce the same amount of canopy as before.

If the tree cannot be replaced or is too burdensome to replace, the ordinance also allows property owners and developers to pay into a central fund, which is expected to generate $191,000 in 2024.

According to Seattle’s latest tree canopy assessment, 47% of the city’s tree canopy cover is in residential areas and 42% is in public lands like rights of way, natural areas or parks.

Under the previous tree rules, property owners in residential areas could remove up to three trees under 30 inches wide each year in any type of private property. Under the new ordinance, only two trees under a foot wide may be removed in a three-year period, unless deemed hazardous or in a downtown or industrial area.

Mayor Bruce Harrell also issued an executive order in March requiring three trees to replace every healthy tree removed from city land. Trees that died or are hazardous must be replaced with two.

Seattle’s Urban Forestry Commission asked council members to delay Tuesday’s vote until July. In support, Alex Pedersen motioned to postpone the vote until June, but failed to get enough council support.

In the past, Pedersen has called the ordinance a “death sentence for hundreds of trees throughout our city” and a “profits protection bill.”

Councilmember Lisa Herbold also supported the motion, saying she wanted to further improve preservation of the tree canopy in low-income neighborhoods.

The bill has the support of Sierra Club Seattle, Habitat for Humanity and the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County. The Beacon Hill Council and Birds Connect Seattle, previously called Seattle Audubon, had also asked for a delay in voting.

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