Preliminary evaluation of the draft 2023 Seattle SDCI tree ordinance update

The following is a preliminary evaluation of the draft 2023 Seattle SDCI Tree Protection Ordinance update. 3/17/2023
  • 2023 Draft tree protection ordinance update being presented to the city is now a tree and housing ordinance. “An Ordinance relating to tree protection: balancing the need for housing production and increasing tree protections and amending Sections 23.44.020. 23.47A.016, 23.48.055,23.76.004. 23.76.006 and Chapter 25.11 of the Seattle Municipal Code.
  • The 2023 draft tree ordinance has been significantly changed from the 2022 draft. Many of the changes follow those recommended by the Washington building industry.  Neither the Seattle Urban Forestry Commission or the public was presented with the proposed ordinance changes to discuss them prior to their release, the same as with the 2022 draft.  Not all of the documents have been presented or are readily accessible to the public including any new Director’s Rules, or An Expanded Summary of Code Changes or SDCI Director’s Report – Tree Legislation March 6, 2023. Also not available is a detailed comparison of the changes made from the 2022 draft on which a determination of non-significance was made.
  • Removed definition of exceptional trees in current ordinance. They would now just be called Tier 2 trees
  • Removed definition of significant trees that was in 2022 draft last year.
  • A proposed renaming of trees would create confusion and bias by deleting the common definition of trees as either exceptional or significant. It would classify trees as Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3 and Tier 4. The Tier number goes up as the size of the tree decreases. Many other cities use the exceptional and significant terminology as has Seattle for many years. A Tier classification is not terminology used by other cities and should be rejected.. The re-classification is an attempt to diminish the public perception of the value of trees by removing common nomenclature the public understands and will hurt efforts to protect and plant trees.
  • Removes protections for significant  that are 6 – 12 inches DSH. These trees would be  called Tier 4 trees. They would no longer be required to be on development site plans and could be removed during development without the city considering them for protection. Previous language talked about protecting potential exceptional trees. Many are potential replacement trees for our urban forest as older trees die. This is also a loss of critical data needed to track tree loss and replacement as required by Mayor Harrell’s Executive order.
  • The proposed ordinance does not cover trees in the industrial or downtown areas and is only updated for institutions when they develop a new Master Plan.
  • Buildings would be allowed to cover 85% of the lot in multi-family zones, eliminating space for trees. Seattle’s Neighborhood Residential (formerly single-family) zone is poised to become a multi-family zone if the state middle housing bill passes.
  • A new street tree requirement would only apply to homes where single-family houses are built, not new multifamily family housing in neighborhood residential zone.. The Building Industry lobby in the Washington State Legislature is pushing for townhouses and other multifamily housing in Seattle’s neighborhood residential zone. All housing built, regardless of the housing zone, should be required to plant street trees.
  • Added definition of a Tier 1 tree as a heritage Tree. There are only about 178 in Seattle according to SDOT map. A separate number of 131 has been mentioned. They should continue to be under the definition of exceptional trees.
  • When no new development is proposed on developed property, two Tier 3 trees (12″ DSH to 24″DSH non-exceptional) in 3 years may be removed in Neighborhood Residential, Lowrise, Midrise, Commercial and Seattle Mixed Zones.  Says no more than three Tier 3 and 4 trees may be removed in any one year period in all other zones. Doesn’t say what those zones are but High Rise and Industrial are not listed in previous sentence. 
  • Does not require tree inventory and landscape plans be done prior to issuing building permits like Portland, Oregon requires. This means no data is being collected on tree loss or replacement on site. Site plans are not in an accessible data form, requiring city workers to retrieve and put in a database system increasing costs for the city. Developers should submit the data in the form of a tree inventory as Portland Oregon requires. . And the draft does not require 6 -12 inch DSH trees to be on site plans. This is inconsistent with other City Departments like SDOT which requires permits to remove 6″ DSH trees and larger. Mayor Harrell’s Executive requires this collection of data. It needs to include tree species, DSH, tree health, and the reason for removal to help assess changes in the city’s tree canopy.
  • Only recording 12″ DSH and larger trees is only about 18% of Seattle’s trees in neighborhood residential zone.  6″ DSH trees represent about 45% of trees in neighborhood residential zone according to Seattle Forest Ecosystem Report
    • Still only requires developers plant one or more trees for trees removed. Replacement  at maturity must roughly equal canopy area lost. The number of trees required for replacement for an 80-year-old tree when only one for one replacement is required is not any equivalency in terms of canopy volume and environmental benefits lost. Replacement of one tree to reach equivalency takes 80 years, assuming it survives.  As far as we know no more than “one for one” tree replacement has ever been required. No data records are kept on tree replacement. Replacement language was first in the 2001 Ordinance but only within the last several years has SDCI put language to that effect in their client assistance memos.  No fund or records exists of any funds collected by the city to replant trees off site in public areas. Also no records of trees planted off site exist that I am aware of. There is no database record of trees replaced on site. No replacement required for non-development removal of trees.
  • Draft ordinance does not set up a separate Tree Planting and Preservation Fund but only has SDCI collecting the funds. Portland Oregon has a Tree Planting and Preservation Fund administered by the City Forester, maintained as a separate fund and  independent of their general fund or building department. Mayor Harrell’s Executive order 2023-03 One Seattle Tree Plan – Growing and Fostering an Equitable Tree Canopy on Public Land orders the creation of a One Seattle Tree Fund but it is not in the draft. It should be located in the Office of Sustainability and Environment under the oversight of the City Urban Forester to insure oversight and independence. Portland Oregon’s Fund is overseen by their urban forester, independent of their building department 
  • Language reverts to only requiring 3 days posting online for Tree Service Provider work. The City Council just passed an ordinance to require 6 business days’ posting online. The six business days need to be maintained. The online reporting also needs to require tree species and reason for tree removal for all work done, not just “deciduous trees” as reported in some instances.
  • New – in lieu fees collected for replacing trees 12″ DSH and larger during development. No reference to trees removed outside development for tree replacement. Portland requires at least one tree be replanted for trees removed outside development.  In-lieu fee amount to be decided by SDCI Director’s Rule. In lieu fees appear to have changed significantly from the draft Director’s Rule X-2022. Significant, non-exceptional trees 12″ DSH and larger in lieu fee have increased to $2833. Exceptional Trees are based on $17.87 per square inch. Portland, Oregon charges $450/diameter inch. A 24″ diameter tree in Seattle would have an in-lieu of $8,080, in Portland it would be $10,800.
  • No requirement for property owners to get a permit to remove a tree, unlike SDOT and many other cities require. The Ordinance update remains a complaint-based system by citizens which has been proven to not be very effective. SDCI has only 2 arborists who it appears do not have time to do field checking. SDCI relies on project planners to do any checking in the field it appears but there is no requirement they be arborists or city foresters.
  • The City urban forester position approved in the city budget and responsibilities is not included in the ordinance and needs to be added. The City Urban Forester should oversee the One Seattle tree Fund  proposed by Mayor Harrell. Also the fund is proposed to look for outside funding as Portland does for their fund.
  • Draft Director’s Rule X-2023 Designation of Tier2 Trees (Previously Exceptional Trees) does not mention tree groves.
Please send any corrections or additional evaluation to to help complete this document. Thanks.

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