Tag Archives: tree protection regulations

Seattle Department of Planning and Development Continues Faux Public Comment Process.

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is continuing a rigged phony public involvement process in seeking comment on its proposed plan  to deregulate tree protection in Seattle.  DPD’s  posting of a “Summary of Comments Received on DPD Tree Regulations” does little if anything  to clarify the issues involved in trying to protect trees in Seattle or help in drafting real urban forestry and tree protection legislation.

The problem starts with the fact that the very people who produced the summary are opposed to tree regulations and proposed to deregulate all tree protection for the City in their draft document. They ignored the Seattle City Council’s resolution #31138 urging development of a proposal to increase tree protection and chose to propose the opposite by wiping out the existing protections for mature trees and tree groves and proposing instead to “provide incentives and educate people to save trees”.  They cited no examples of where this has worked elsewhere.

Now, rather than publishing the actual letters and comments of those that gave input on their proposal, like other cities have done (eg see Shoreline’s public comments on their tree protection proposal here) , DPD  choose instead to anonymously publish what seems to be their edited “notes” of so called public meeting comments and and written comments.

At least two separate DPD personnel were probably involved in this so called summation. Without any written record being presented we are expected to accept DPD’s version of feedback made in some instances by “numerous commenters”, while other comments are attributed to a single person or a group. A summation is fine if one can refer to the original comments but all that is available on the Internet by DPD is their version of what was said. Unfortunately many comments are missing fronm their summation or were edited by DPD.

Having attended 7 of these community sessions, I noted that no audio or video recording was made at any of these meetings, no one was visibly taking notes most of the time and response forms were maybe present once or twice but otherwise no record seemed to be kept of individual meetings or comments.  The summary is not attributed to any author or staff person but was probably done by DPD staffer  Brennon Staley since he did many of the meetings mentioned.

At the Save the Trees meeting, e.g. to which Brennon Staley was invited, we spent an hour discussing issues. We presented a written 10 point plan on what we felt should be in a good urban forestry protection law. When asked how he was recording our discussion he indicated he was taking “notes”, although I saw little note taking.

So in the DPD summary a specific written comment from our handout like “Consolidate oversight, regulation and enforcement in an independent department other than DPD, that does not have a conflict of interest.” became “Consider consolidating all regulations, permits and staff dealing with trees into a single Department.” This is the type of editorial revision that takes place in the summary. Other specific comments like”2 week posting of permits on the Internet and visible sign on the site” are likewise abbreviated and reworded.

A comment supposedly attributed to me (my name is misspelled) says “Requirements shouldn’t be based on development potential; they should be based on the existing conditions on a lot” is not how I would have expressed this idea. My comment related to requiring consideration of building within the existing environment, rather than ignoring it, which is what currently policy seems to do.

Another comment also attributed to Save the Trees says, “Lots without trees could have their property tax increased.” This is not a Save the Trees position and to attribute a comment supposedly made by an individual in a discussion as from Save the Trees is a misuse and misrepresentation of the organization’s name and position.

We submitted an official statement to DPD as to our position and I think it is unprofessional and unethical to ignore those comments and instead allow one or two staff members from DPD to interpret and put in their own words what “the public said”.

This is all the continuation of a biased process, driven by interests within DPD that want to deregulate tree protection and have basically done so in their permitting process based on their history. DPD is trying to put in law what they have been doing for years, basically saying they are all for protecting trees “unless it limits the development potential of a lot.”

As neighbors learned in the Ingraham appeal process, DPD instructs its people not to put their policy considerations used to arrive at a decision in writing, so that they cannot be required to be produced and challenged in Court.

The same thing  has happened in the development of the proposed DPD tree regulations. Internally, the urban forest contingent from the different City Departments has been told not to keep notes of any of their discussions and deliberations. While taxpayers pay their salaries, we are not allowed access to their deliberations. There are no notes kept of meetings according to those we have talked to.

So the summary follows a similar process and DPD seemingly thinks this is acceptable and normal procedure for a public process. Don’t publish what people actually wrote or record what they said but “summarize” it and interpret it and emphasize what you want and ignore what you don’t want. It becomes a very subjective evaluation based on the summarizer’s memory and focus and DPD’s  politics and bias.

This is an attempt to control the dialogue and information flow and discussion. In politics this is called spin. Rather than let the public see the actual comments as written or hear them on an audio or video recording like the City Council does, DPD states that “numerous commenter’s” said such and such and equates many comments as numerous. But what is numerous. Anything more than 1 person, 2, 5 or 10 or more than one group? What did they actually say?

The whole  process was actually not a very public process besides the Sept. open house, since no other meetings were publicly announced or posted on the City’s website. Although DPD speakers were being paid with tax dollars to basically promote DPD’s tree deregulation proposal, Brennon Staley refused several public requests from me to say where they were speaking.

He said he did not have to tell us.He stated this in two separate public meetings.  He refused to post any of these taxpayer paid speaking engagements on the website for public outreach. Without any basis, he insinuated that “we would come and disrupt” the meetings.

And efforts by us and others to get public input in, when they were excluding public participation at meetings they were speaking at, are labeled as “Organized participation (including letter writing campaigns) by advocacy groups predominantly supported stronger tree protections.”  The allusion is that this is not good. I did not know this was something bad, to ask people to respond, when DPD was doing little to invite public involvement or comment. Would this same comment have been made if we were urging people to say we liked DPD’s proposal?

All in all, I think DPD’s summary of comments is of limited value except to say there is a diversity of viewpoints out there. DPD has used the summation process to selectively pick certain comments to print, to put their interpretation on them by paraphrasing as best they can remember them without any recording and to exclude other comments. The summary presents a smattering of ideas but equates many as equal by calling them all either numerous or only citing one commenter making it. It’s all political spin by DPD to control the process rather than open the process up for public dialogue.

All in all, DPD is trying to create the illusion of public input, while tightly trying to limit and spin to their advantage what the public said. Without recorded comments or  producing the written record, we only have DPD’s version of events.  And that is not very credible.

Steve Zemke

Chair Save the Trees-Seattle

Seattle’s DPD Proposes Eliminating Almost all Tree Protections

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:

mike.mcginn@seattle.gov seattle.gov

also cc the Seattle Urban Forestry Commission at

Urban Forest and Tree Protection Laws

The Seattle Urban Forestry Commission is reviewing our tree protection ordinance and will be recommending chages needed to help increase our urban forest canopy to meet the 30% canopy cover adopted by the city. We are currently at about 23% canopy cover but are losing trees in our park areas due to invasive species like blackberry and ivy.  The biggest potential new tree cover is private property.  The city has actually mapped out potential areas for canopy growth. But a new ordinance and plan is necessary to effectively implement a policy to increase our tree canopy.

Here are links to some articles relevant to developing and strengthening our urban forest and tree protection laws that I found helpful:

Urban Tree Conservation: A White Paper on Local Ordinances
Sept 2007, Montgomery Tree Committee. 68 pages

This paper deals with”conservation of urban forests on private land” and is one of the best overviews I have found. It discusses and compares many different ordinances and approaches it from a holistic viewpoint, looking not just at trees but also biodiversity and ecosystem concerns.

Tree Ordinance Development Guidebook
Sept 2005 by the Georgia Forestry Commission, Urban and Community Forestry Program. 25 pages

This Guidebook is not very long but it has a good overview, including a Tree Board/Tree Ordinance Evaluation, and a Resource List.

Guideline for Developing and Evaluating Tree Ordinances
International Society of Arboriculture, Oct 2001. 181 pages a real compendium of information on tree ordinance issues

October 2010 update:

several other links also provide guidance in developing a tree ordinance.

http://www.scenic.org/tree/model_ordinance –
Scenic America – outlines key elements of a model tree protection ordinance

Tree Ordinance – ConservationTools.org – a good 7 page overview