DETERMINATION OF NON-SIGNIFICANCE RELEASED ON NEWEST VERSION OF TREE REGULATIONS ORDINANCE

Its Time to Update Seattle’s Tree Ordinance

DETERMINATION OF NON-SIGNIFICANCE RELEASED ON NEWEST VERSION OF TREE REGULATIONS ORDINANCE (Version D7)

Summary:

Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson’s relentless push to repeal Seattle’s current Tree Protection Ordinance SMC 25.11 has advanced with the release on August 16, 2018 of final language for the proposed new Tree Ordinance (Version D7 – https://www.seattle.gov/council/meet-the-council/rob-johnson/trees-for-all)

Unfortunately the Seattle City Council’s latest version of an update to the current Tree Protection Ordinance  has changed to what we consider a “Tree Removal and Mitigation Ordinance.” There is a big difference between proactive tree retention/protection vs mitigation, which occurs after a tree is cut.  The current proposed ordinance:

  1. Removes any limit on the number of trees that can be removed per year;
  2. Removes the prohibition against cutting down exceptional trees (which are the largest of their species) on developed lots. The definition of exceptional trees includes Heritage trees and tree groves; and
  3. Removes the current prohibition of cutting down any tree over 6″ in diameter (DBH) on undeveloped lots. 

Other details are seen below the meeting announcement – Please try to attend either or both of the meetings below and make your voice heard!

1) The Coalition for a Stronger Tree Ordinance public meeting:

Saturday, Sept. 1st from 11:15 AM to 1:15 PM 

Green Lake Public Library, 7364 East Green Lake Dr North, Seattle WA 98115 

Please come to learn more about what is happening, to voice your  opinion and discuss what actions should be taken.

Bring a laptop or device so you can write and send some e-mails on this issue.

2) The Seattle Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee (PLUZ) is holding a Public Hearing on the draft ordinance 

Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018  9:30 AM to 11:30 AM (sign up starts at 9 AM)

Seattle City Hall, City Council Chambers,  600 4th Ave, Seattle,WA 98104

Please e-mail us at steve@friends.urbanforests.org to let us know if you can testify. Thanks. 

additional details (continued from above):

  • Other provisions add very complex requirements for property owners to calculate canopy coverage themselves, contain no guarantees or funding for increased enforcement and essentially would leave most of the City’s trees vulnerable to being cut down at a time when increased fires, adverse climate change impacts and problems associated with stormwater pollution are top of mind and serious city and regional issues.

The proposal would add some long needed updates to current code but these changes should be in addition to the current protections, not in place of them.

On balance the proposed new ordinance’s emphasis is on making it easier for development to occur, not on protecting existing trees. Once a mature tree is taken down and replaced by a 2 inch sapling, the full benefits and functions of that tree will not be realized for the decades it takes to replace trees removed. During that time, the City would then suffer from the supercharged effects of climate change in the absence of this mature tree canopy. The City has a notoriously poor record of tree replacement. For 17 years the Seattle Planning and Inspection Department, and its previous incarnations,  has not enforced an existing provision in the current Tree Protection Ordinance, SMC 25.11.090, which required developers to replace exceptional trees and trees over 24″ DBH.  The City also has failed to create or maintain any record of the thousands of trees that have been cut down n private property and during development for those 17 years.

Here are the links to the current documents regarding the proposed repeal and replacement of SMC 25.11 – Tree Protection Ordinance.

The operating document is now the August 16, 2018 draft -D7, which is now an Ordinance for Repeal and Replacement,

 What  is added, changed or removed from SMC 25.11:

·         added – requires permits for removing trees greater than 6″ DBH in all zones of city for both developed lots and lots undergoing development. Separate permits established for major and minor tree removal

·         added – requires tree replacement if canopy falls below Urban Forestry Management Plan canopy goal for zone that lot is in

·         added – requires tree replacement for all lots where canopy falls below Urban Forestry Management Plan (UFMP), either on site, off site or pay fee in lieu if trees cannot be replaced on site

·         added – tree care providers must sign statement they  have read and are familiar with tree regulations

·         added – increases penalties for illegal tree removal, including not getting a permit

·         added – on site posting required (2 days – minor permit, 2 weeks – major permit)

·         major change –  going from a concept of permits for tree removal based on the species and diameter of a tree at 4.5′ to measuring  the amount of canopy removed.  Property owners would have to determine the area of their lot, add the area of their right of way which is city property,  measure all the canopy of the trees on their lot and the right of way, measure the canopy of the tree or trees they are removing, subtract it from the overall canopy measurement, then check it with the canopy goals for the zone they live in and if the remaining area is under the canopy goal, replace the tree or trees on site, off site with the ensuing estimated canopy reaching in time the lost canopy or pay a fee in lieu. Right of way tree planting and removal is not covered by this permit however as SDOT has its own tree permit system and City Light can prune and remove trees.

·         major problem with this approach as written is that it says no tree replacement is required as long as the trees removed and their canopy does not reduce the lot coverage below the zone goal in the UFMP.  Since the zone goal is an average based on the total canopy coverage divided by the area of the zone, not replacing trees removed over the average value for the zone  means the actual zone canopy over time will result in a net loss of tree canopy.

·         major problem – Using LIDAR studies to measure  tree canopy in a zone is not a precise measurement  as LIDAR measurements are really a vegetation cover analysis, not a tree cover analysis. The 2016 LIDAR analysis measured canopy at 8 feet which can include a lot of shrubs like laurel bushes. This distorts the actual tree canopy per cent for zone goals and is an additional problem if these measurements are used to determine lot coverage. The accuracy of the measurement decreases with a decrease in the sample area.

·         major problem –  Trees cross property lines. A tree trunk may be on one lot, the tree’s canopy can actually be on two or more lots depending on location of the trunk.The city should stick with tree removal, not canopy removal which crosses lot lines. Also canopy is an area measurement based on branch sizes. Tree canopy volume and leaf density is the true measure of ecological services and that varies with the tree species and age of the tree.

·         changed – SMC 25.11.090 required developers to replace all trees over 24′ DBH and that are exceptional. The proposed ordinance  replaces it with requiring developers to replace all trees over 6′ DBH but only up to the canopy goal in that zone. This will result in a net loss of trees where the original canopy is greater than the average for the zone. (Note – SMC 25.11.090, requiring developers to replace all exceptional trees removed and trees over 24″ DBH was not  enforced by the Seattle Building Department it appears since it was passed in 2001).

·         removed – designation and protection of exceptional trees which are the largest trees of a species. The current ordinance said developed  property owners can not remove exceptional trees unless they were hazardous. The change in the draft  significantly reduces protection for large trees. From Director’s Rule 16-2008 – “An exceptional tree is a tree that: 1. Is designated as a heritage tree by the City of Seattle; or 2. Is rare or exceptional by virtue of its size, species, condition, cultural/historic importance, age, and/or contribution as part of grove of trees and trees …”

·         removed –protection of tree groves (they were added as exceptional in 2008). Tree groves would no longer be protected.

·         removed – a limit of 3 trees per year being removed  which were significant (over 6 ” DBH) but not exceptional. Draft sets no limit on number of trees that can be removed or any limits on the size or age of the tree.

·         removed – prohibition of cutting down any tree over 6″ DBH on an undeveloped lot. Limit would now be by zone allowing a fully treed lot to have its  canopy reduced significantly without requiring tree replacement above the canopy goal for that zone, eg  100% canopy cover to 20% in the multifamily zone would be allowed with no replacement required.

The most recent ordinance change was made in the last 2 weeks of summer (coincidentally during the worst smoke pollution we have ever experience), with only ONE hearing date scheduled for September 5th, a day after people  return from a federal holiday.

Unfortunately with the major changes proposed and the lack of real public outreach and discussion of possible alternatives and their impacts, the city needs to slow down and allow a careful evaluation of these changes. It should prepare an environmental impact statement.  Rather, it issued what is called a Determination of Non-significance under our state Environmental Policy Act law, called SEPA. This ordinance will have major and anticipated, catastrophic impacts on the future of the trees and urban forest of this city.

A strengthened tree ordinance would have restored the removed provisions mentioned above from the current ordinance and required tree replacement for all trees removed over 6″ DBH either on site or off site in all zones, regardless of whether it is a major or minor permit, while keeping the canopy goals for coverage of lots.

The city has chosen not to do that for some reason despite urging by the Seattle Urban Forestry Commission, citizen groups, environmental experts and individuals. However, as written right now, it would significantly reduce  protection for existing large trees and allows canopy coverage to decrease in zones. A Douglas fir that is 80 years old that is cut down takes 80 years to replace an equivalent canopy of just the canopy removed when the tree was cut down and not counting the canopy that would have increased if the tree had not been removed.Every tree removed is a loss to the existing canopy coverage and only over a long period of time can it be replaced. Not all trees replaced survive.

Implications for Seattle’s Tree Canopy goals

Using canopy goals in the 2013 Urban Forest Stewardship Plan (UFMP) would result in lower goals than actual canopy cover measured in 2016 LIDAR Study in 2 zones. Institutional canopy cover measured in 2016 was 25%, UFSP goal is 20%. Multifamily canopy cover measured in 2016 was 23%, UFSP goal is 20%. LiDAR study also showed higher canopy cover in Developed Parks and Parks Natural Areas than listed as canopy goals.

The Urban Forestry Management Plan is currently being updated and the zone goals could increase. Canopy measurements are actually an average value across a zone meaning lots with more trees average out with lots with less trees – all lots do not have identical canopy.

The City’s Own Tree Regulations Research Project Points Out Weaknesses

According to the Tree Regulations Research Project Phase 1 Summary, the city deals with about 10,000 permits/year. A recent Seattle Times article put the building permit number last year (a busy one) at 7,000.  Most of these have trees associated with them. There is ONE arborist working for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) where the tree regulations are developed.

The proposal for major tree permits under the current draft, most of which would occur during development, would require a detailed tree inventory and tree report identifying trees on site by species and size, so identifying exceptional trees would not be a  problem. People could use an app like Find It, Fix It that the city has for repairs to send a photo of the tree and a close up of its leaves or needles to help identify it when they request a permit to remove a tree.

The city has not kept track of trees lost or replaced  during development and appears not willing to really do so here as it does not propose one system for tree permits and keeping track of results but will let trees be removed during development by being “included with another SDCI approval.”  That approval system has not tracked tree loss and replacement to date and under its current Accela data system being used is continuing that trend even though it has the authority  under SMC 25.11 to issue permits and keep track of them.

The ordinance also purports to have a parallel permit system for “minor” tree removal permits. This permit does not require tree identification and the City claims that “it will be too difficult to determine tree species.”  Rather, it has foisted an arcane tree canopy measurement and calculation system onto the property owner but which all but guarantee an unenforceable gaming of the system. Again an app allowing property owners to send pictures of the tree to the city with their application for a permit would solve this problem.

Council member Johnson’s Trees for All  Timeline now has scheduled only a single Sept 5, 2018 public hearing and possible vote by the Planning, Use and Zoning Committee on Sept 19, 2018. If the full Council does not vote by the end of September this proposal will be back before the Council in January as they deal with the budget for next year in October and November.

 Please Act Now By Writing

Now is the time to let Mayor Durkan and the Seattle City Council know that the current draft is not acceptable as proposed but needs to be thoroughly and carefully evaluated and revised. jjenny.durkan@seattle.gov and Council@seattle.gov .  Current protections that were removed need to be added back. The ordinance  needs. to be based on individual tree removal, not canopy in terms of replacement. All trees removed must be replaced to ensure a no net loss of canopy over time.

The city needs to slow down and allow adequate public debate and  discussion on this major citywide issue that will have a significant impact on our urban forest. It needs to do an environmental impact statement, evaluating the current ordinance, the proposed replacement ordinance and a third alternative. Since the city has released a determination of non-significance in its SEPA decision, unless the city withdraws its conclusion, it will be necessary to appeal their decision to the city hearing examiner, asking that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be conducted.  That must be done within 3 weeks of the release of the DNS, which would be September 13th.


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