Draft Seattle Tree Ordinance Needs Improvement

Draft Seattle Tree Protection Ordinance (Version 5b) needs improvement and needs to add back current protections that were removed! 

 On August 1st Councilmember Rob Johnson released the first draft of an updated Seattle tree ordinance and a new Council memo.

Draft Tree Regulation Update  – August 1, 2018

Central staff memo – proposed tree regulation bill  – August 1, 2018

SMC 25.11 – Tree Protection Ordinance being repealed

The draft tree ordinance is not a finished product as there are sections referenced but missing and links and numbers missing in the text.

While it incorporates a number of positions that the Seattle Urban Forestry Commission and numerous other organizations  urged the city to include, like tree permits for all trees 6 ” DBH and above and fees to replace trees in all zones, it also removes major tree protections that are in the current ordinance. It repeals much but not all of the current ordinance without including the repealed language in the draft which makes it difficult for people to track the changes.

Reading the bill by itself, it appears to be a good draft until you  realize what has been removed. You have to search though

to ascertain what was repealed and what was kept.

What  is added, changed or removed:

  • added – requires permits for removing trees greater than 6″ DBH in all zones of city
  • added – requires tree replacement if canopy falls below Urban Forestry Management Plan canopy goal for zone that lot is in
  • added – requires 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
  • added – on site posing required (2 days – minor permit, 2 weeks – major permit)
  • major change –  going from a concept of tree removal to canopy removal.  Canopy is a much less precise measurement  dependent on LIDAR studies which 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. And while 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.
  • changed – SMC 25.11.090 requiring developers to replace all trees over 24′ DBH and that are exceptional. It 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 was very seldom 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 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 no longer 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.
  • 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.

A SEPA Analysis is required under state law. It would require filling out an environmental checklist which is not very detailed.  The City would probably come back with a determination of non-significance    With the major changes proposed and the uncertainty of what the impacts of a drastically revised draft as currently written would be, requiring an EIS would make sense. There  will be a two week comment and appeal time.

If the city responds by putting back 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, then  this would be a strengthening of the existing ordinance. However, as written right now, it appears to  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. 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.

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 7000.  Most of these have trees associated with them. The proposal for major tree permits under the current draft, which are probably mostly during development, would require a detailed tree inventory and tree report identifying trees on site by species and size so identifying exceptional trees would be no problem.

The question is how many minor tree permits are expected and my guess is far less.  It really does not seem it would be a big problem identifying tree species for minor permits, making the “too difficult to determine tree species” not a credible argument compared to the benefit of protecting exceptional trees.

Using canopy goals in the 2013 Urban Forest Stewardship Plan 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.

Trees for All  Timeline now is for 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 Sept this proposal will be back before the Council in January as they deal with the budget for next year in October and November.

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 further revised. 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.

You can send comments to jenny.durkan@seattle.gov and council@seattle.gov

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