The Seattle Departmant of Planning and Development (DPD) is proposing new tree regulations that would eliminate current protections for exceptional trees, tree groves and most other trees. The proposal was developed in secret without a public process.
The draft proposal was prepared in response to last year’s City Council Resolution 31138 . The DPD proposal is inadequate and does not meet the pressing needs of preserving and enhancing Seattle urban forest and trees. It represents a significant step backwards in protecting this valuable infrastructure of our city.
It is important to note that the very first directive in Resolution 31138 in Section 1 is not met in several ways by DPD’s “City of Seattle Proposed Tree Regulations dated July 14, 2010. The resolution states that “The City Council requests that the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) submit legislation by May 2010 to establish a comprehensive set of regulations and incentives to limit the removal of trees and promote the retention and addition of trees within the City of Seattle on both private and public property, including city park land.”
The report does the opposite by proposing the repeal of the interim tree ordinance, removal of protections for exceptional trees and relying only on incentives to protect trees.
DPD’s proposal is not legislation but only a report. In the introduction it states that “The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is proposing to revise Seattle’s regulations governing trees on private property.” The report completely ignores the public component of protecting the urban forest. If urban forest regulations are to be effective, public and private entities must follow the same regulations.
Resolution 31138 directed DPD to look at “establishing additional protections for all City-designated exceptional trees”. This seems pretty clear, yet DPD’s response is to propose eliminating any protections for exceptional trees. This would represent a major reversal and repudiation of the goals of protecting unique species, old trees and others currently classified as exceptional. This is unacceptable.
Another criticism of the report is that it approaches urban forestry protection only from the sense of trees, not urban forestry. It ignores the ecological component of the interrelationship of plants and animals and the need for habitat protection. The impact of individual tree decisions is never in isolation but affects communities of plants and animals and their ability to survive.
The interim tree ordinance gave protection to groves of trees; yet no mention is made of this in this report. Many species of birds, insects and other animal’s survival depends on the retention of native plant species, including but not limited to “trees”. It is well known that the diversity of plants and animals increases as habitat patch size increases. The proposal removes interim protection for tree groves.
Also the whole definition of canopy analysis is dated ecologically. Canopy needs to be defined in terms of canopy volume. In an aerial photo a 100 year old 120 foot tall Douglas fir could appear to cover the same surface area as a group of 5 or 10 street trees yet the canopy volume would be hugely different.
This report needs to take into consideration these concerns of biodiversity and ecosystem sustainability. Many of these concerns are addressed in a 68 page report by the Montgomery Tree Committee entitled “Urban Tree Conservation: A White Paper on Local Ordinances”
An inherent conflict of interest exists in having DPD develop and oversee urban forest and tree regulations. It represents an internal conflict of interests. DPD’s primary mission is to help people develop their property. As noted in a recent public presentation by a DPD employee, the DPD’s interpretation is that trees can be saved unless they prohibit the development potential of a lot. As such DPD’s mission is clear and trees lose.
Seattle’s urban forest needs an independent advocate for its protection. The most likely candidate is to vest tree regulation and oversight in one city agency, not nine as is currently the situation. The Office of Sustainability and Environment is the most logical choice. The recent city Auditor’s Report in 2009 entitled “Management of City Trees Can be Improved”, concurred with this view when it stated that the City “Unify all City Departments behind a single mission through clear and demonstrated leadership by the Office of Sustainability and the Environment. The City’s current approach to trees lacks top leadership with the authority and accountability to ensure implementation of the Urban Forestry Management Plan.”
Another directive is to look at “establishing a requirement to obtain a permit before removing any tree in any residential, commercial or industrial zone”. Again pretty clear, yet DPD’s response is to oppose this, despite other cities requiring permits before trees can be cut down. Seattle already has a requirement to get a permit to cut down or prune privately planted and maintained trees in the public right of way, like the parking strip in front of one’s home. The permit is administered by SDOT, the Seattle Department of Transportation. The report makes no mention of this.
What is needed is to expand this current tree cutting permit to include all trees on public and private property that are above some minimum diameter. Many cities use a 6 inch diameter. Of course a special case needs to be dealt with in replacement trees that are planted as the result of, e.g., a land use action. Many of these trees will be less than 6 inches in diameter for a number of years.
Permits could be several tiered, with a list of exceptional trees being much more difficult to remove. There is no enforcement now of cutting of exceptional trees because DPD operates with a complaint based system, rather than a permit system. It is a dismal failure. By the time you hear the chainsaw, it is impossible to save exceptional trees or any other trees.
Permits could be applied for on the internet, and posted for at least a week before final approval and for a week afterwards so that the public and the city have a chance to check them out. Atlanta, GA requires a 2 week posting period. For a large tree like a 70 year old Douglas fir, a week or two is a small time indeed. Signs should also be posted, visible to the public in the vicinity of the tree to be cut. Neighbors on adjoining properties should be notified since frequently tree disputes are about whose tree it really is. A way to question or appeal the tree cutting should be set up, requiring at least a second opinion by the city or another arborist.
To eliminate the requirement that property owners know every nuance of the law, tree arborists doing business in the city should apply for a special tree cutting license, be professionally certified and attend a briefing by city officials on our tree laws and regulations. If trees are removed contrary to the law, the city could then go after the arborists with fines, and for repeat offenders or multiple violations, revocation also of their license. Most homeowners are not going to cut down large trees on their property because of damage and liability issues. They will probably hire someone.
One possible incentive system could be patterned after the senior exemption for property owners. The senior exemption is not automatic but property owners have to fill out an application and not exceed certain income levels. A rebate or reduction in water and sewer bills for maintaining trees and forested area could be made available but people would have to apply for them, listing tree species and sizes. This would help to establish the connection between trees and the benefits they provide property and home owners and the city.
Unfortunately the DPD report was prepared in secret without any major public input. It did not represent an open process or even examine many issues brought up in resolution 31138. And it is by no means comprehensive. Besides some of the major concerns we’ve brought up, any urban forestry or “tree” regulation is subject to the details in how the law would actually be written. The devil is in the details and there are very few details in this report.
As an example the DPD should use as a starting guideline an evaluation of any proposed regulation on the level proposed by The International Society of Arboriculture in its 181 page “Guideline for Developing and Evaluating Tree Ordinances.” A smaller and incomplete checklist was also developed by the Georgia Forestry Commission entitled, “Tree Ordinance Development Guideline”.
Both these reports should act as a starting point to discuss the multitude of issues and specific concerns that need to be addressed in the development of any comprehensive urban forest and tree ordinance that both works and is accepted by the public. The current report is incomplete and unacceptable.
Please contact Mayor McGinn and the Seattle City Council to voice your opposition to DPD’s proposal to remove protections for exceptional trees, tree groves and our urban forest. Urge that they enact strong legislation to protect our urban forest, increase our canopy cover and protect habitat for native plants and animals.
You can contact them at:
also cc the Seattle Urban Forestry Commission at