The Seattle City Council’s passage last week of Council Bill 116404 – the Interim Tree Protection Ordinance is a small step that is long overdue. The bill closes a loophole the Seattle School District tried to use at Ingraham High School to stop further environmental review of their ill advised decision to build a new addition to the school in a grove of mature trees.
The new interim ordinance will limit to 3 per year the number of trees larger than 6 inches in diameter tthat can be cut down on undeveloped property and on single family property larger than 5000 square feet. The bill extends tree protection to groves of trees by adding them to a definition of exceptional trees.
The interim tree protection ordinance is and has to be viewed as a stop gap measure to give the Mayor and the Seattle City Council time to develop a truly comprehensive approach to protecting and preserving Seattle’s natural green habitat for plants and animals and the rest of us that live in Seattle.
The interim tree protection ordinance is not a comprehensive tree ordinance and only partially addresses the issue of trying to stop the senseless cutting down of trees and tree groves, by limiting tree cutting on lots prior to development. But an even bigger problem is that it did not address what happens during the permit approval process.
Once developers decide to build somewhere, saving trees is not a high priority of the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD). In most cases trees always lose out to construction and development. The job of the DPD is to assist developers in their plans for construction and to gain approval for their projects. The interim tree ordinance still allows trees to be cut down during the development process, even if they are exceptional.
The Department of Planning and Development’s current tree policy is guided by the Director’s Rule 6-2001 on exceptional trees. The exceptional tree rule has a very limitied definition of exceptional that only applies to a small number of trees. . This policy, by Council staff’s own admittance, only potentially protects 1% of Seattle’s trees. That means 99% of Seattle’s trees are not protected.
Even that percentage is questionable because right now any property owner proposing a construction project can cut down almost any tree, no matter how exceptional; all they have to do is say they can’t build if they can’t cut down the tree. This is what just happened in trying to save an old cedar called Big Red in the Ravenna neighborhood.
One trick they use, which DPD seems to buy off on, is that the developer can propose to plant new trees, maybe even 2 to 3 for each one they cut down. Planting two inch saplings while taking out 100 year old trees is not any kind of equivalence. It is a rip off of our urban forest.
The rules to be classified an exceptional tree are very restrictive. Very few trees actually qualify to even be considered exceptional under the DPD’s decision process. For example, DPD’s exceptional tree rules says Douglas fir trees have to be larger than 36 inches in diameter to be considered. Of the 72 trees the Seattle School District wants to cut down in a grove on the west side of Ingraham High School, the largest Douglas fir is 30 inches. The trees in the grove are 75 years old, 25 years older than the school, but none of the Douglas fir qualify as exceptional.
The Ingraham site also has Pacific madrone trees which are rare in the city and declining in numbers but at Ingraham they are labeled as not exceptional because they are not young. The DPD says young madrone trees may be protected. At Ingraham the School District has been moving the understory area and cutting down young trees shoots of madrone. So mismanagement of the habitat is being rewarded by the City.
Tamara Garrett of the DPD in reviewing the Ingraham High School Construction Project repeatedly described the cutting down of the 72 trees that are 75 years old and represent 100 foot tall Douglas fir, western red cedar and pacific madrone trees as “Several mature trees situated in the Northwest Grove have the potential to be affected by the proposed project.” And “conversely, members of the public opposed to the proposal mainly cited concerns about negative impacts associated with the removal of several mature trees on the site” and “The planned removal of several mature trees from the area of the site could negatively impact the survival of existing spawning, feeding or nesting areas of the birds.”
One has to wonder at what point DPD considers the removal of trees more than several. Would cutting down Seward Park or the trees at Green Lake also be nothing more than ‘the loss of a few trees?” The problem is that the DPD has given no consideration to the value of tree groves (read urban green habitat) as distinct from whether any tree in a grove is exceptional.
Taking 1% of our current 18% tree canopy means we could potentially save only .18% of Seattle’s tree canopy according to the DPD’s Director’s Rules on exceptional trees. Can you really call this any kind of tree protection measure? This is a gross misinterpretation of the SEPA laws of the City of Seattle.
From a habitat sense, birds are not avoiding the Ingraham grove because it doesn’t have a 36 inch Douglas fir present. They are using the grove because it has many trees present, some 130 in all. And scientific studies show that the larger the grove, the greater the diversity of bird species. In an older grove of trees, like at Ingraham, vertical stratification also occurs as different species occur at different height levels of the tree canopy.
The Seattle City Council passed an ordinance last year asking the DPD to revise it’s tree policy to reflect the intent of the SEPA provisions in the Seattle Municipal Code and give protection to tree groves. While the DPD has drafted a new interpretation it still has not approved it.
The guiding rule that DPD should be using for tree protection is SMC 25.05.675 (N). How does one go from the requirement to protect rare and uniques plant and animal habitat to only protecting .18% of the tree canopy in Seattle?
You do it by not giving any value to Seattle’s urban green natural habitat. The City needs to take the environmental review out of DPD’s hands and make it independent from those involved in approving construction permits. One way to do this is to move environmental review of construction projects to the Office of Sustainability and the Environment. That sounds like their job is to promote sustainability and the environment. The DPD’s is not; it is to promote construction and development.
One other problem in trying to stop tree loss in the city of Seattle is that no one is tracking the trees being cut down. Current city law does not require anyone to get a permit to cut trees down, like many other cities do. DPD does not keep track of how many trees are cut down each month or year.
Seattle also has no tree inventory, so it truly does not know what it losing or gaining. The best estimate of the state of Seattle’s urban forest status comes form the Urban Forestry Plan which estimated an 18% canopy cover city wide two years ago, down from 40% in 1973. Without a city wide inventory and tracking system and permits no one is keeping count of the trees being cut down. No one.
There is no tracking possible without a permit system of what we are losing. We need to require permits before trees can be cut down.
Environmental review of habitat and trees really needs to be moved out of DPD and done independently – like by the Office of Sustainability and the Environment. It is obvious that when DPD interprets protecting rare plant and animal habitat under SMC 25.05.675 (N) as only requiring protecting so called “exceptional trees”, that it gives no real protection to our natural green habitat or priority to basic ecological values within the city.
Such a limited narrow interpretation is a serious misreading of the Seattle Municipal Code and the intent of SEPA law. It hinders and prevents efforts to sustain and expand Seattle’s urban tree canopy. It is allowing the continued destruction of important plant and animal habitat.
Any new urban forest plan and tree protection ordinance needs to be based on sound urban forest management practices and basic ecological principles. The current system run by DPD is allowing the continued destruction of Seattle’s green natural habitat and needs to be ended.