Seattle Homeowner: Can You Cut Down that Tree?

The City of Seattle is considering new rules that would remove protections on some ‘exceptional tre
Maria Dolan  |   June 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

It wasn’t a native tree. It wasn’t what most would call pretty. And it was so big it dwarfed the little cottage it had grown beside for the past 60 or more years. But the spiky, Seussian monkey puzzle tree that was cut down last January in Ballard by the home’s new owners had been like a fellow neighbor to many local residents. Some cried, and others got angry. Still others backed the new owners, saying that individual property rights should trump sentiment.

The owners could have applied for a permit to cut the tree, but didn’t. The city fined them $11,756.16—the assessed value of the tree—for violating an ordinance that protects “exceptional trees” (generally large, unusual and/or old trees). But the ordinance apparently lacks clarity—and teeth. The owners appealed the fine on the basis of a private arborist’s report stating that the tree presented hazards to the property. (Owners are allowed to remove hazard trees, though the city is supposed to be notified before a tree is cut down.) City officials dismissed the fine.

The complicated incident was only the latest in a long history of scuffles between those with a tree they want to cut and those who view tree cutters as miniature Paul Bunyans. In every corner of our city there’s a tree—or a grove of them—over which advocates have clashed with developers, the city’s parks department, the Seattle school district or their neighbors. Even the proposed Viaduct removal, which some would think couldn’t grow any more controversial, has its own tree issue: There’s a Viaduct-hugging swath of London planes and maples along Alaskan Way that City Council member Nick Licata, among others, believes is worth saving. With the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) considering new regulations for Seattle trees, the topic is hanging over the city like, well, a deeply rooted, disputed tree.

“It’s a polarized issue and it tends to grab people at a gut level, I think,” says Sandra Pinto de Bader, coordinator at the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, a group tasked with collaborating with city departments and other organizations to develop an urban forest restoration and management plan.

But for the city, it’s also a practical issue. Seattle wants to lower its carbon footprint and improve its air quality, and trees, which trap pollution and sequester carbon, are one way to succeed. The city has a goal to increase the tree canopy—the area of our city that is covered by trees, as seen in an aerial view—to 30 percent by the year 2037. (We’re currently at around 23 percent cover, roughly half of Seattle’s canopy of 40 years ago.) And while new trees need to be planted, retaining them is also necessary to reach that goal.

Which is why, last fall, when the DPD proposed changing Seattle’s tree regulations, one of its more controversial suggestions was to remove the “exceptional tree” status meant to offer protection to trees like the monkey puzzle. This suggestion troubled tree advocates, many of whom had wanted the city to expand permitting on private property to include all trees, as is done in some other big cities, including Atlanta. (Under Seattle’s current, interim tree protection ordinance, trees deemed exceptional may not be removed from single-family lots of 5,000 square feet or more, or on any low-rise, midrise and commercial-zoned lots, without a permit. Exceptions are made for hazardous trees.) After a public outcry, the department tabled the proposal until 2012.

“It was a weak [proposal], probably quickly written,” says Matt Mega, chair of the Urban Forestry Commission, an all-volunteer group established last year by a City Council ordinance, tasked with advising the mayor and City Council on urban forestry issues. He says staff cuts last year may have kept the city too busy to fully investigate the options. Mega believes a permit system might work in Seattle; owners would be charged a fee to cut down a very large tree, and the money would go toward buying and maintaining new city trees. The charge would be waived if the city deemed the tree a hazard.

Some groups go further with their criticism of DPD’s proposal. “It takes away every protection for trees,” says Ruth Williams, a longtime member of the nonprofit Thornton Creek Alliance, which belongs to a coalition called Save Our Urban Forest Infrastructure (SOUFI). “Any place there’s a conflict between a tree and a building, the tree goes.” SOUFI members advocate offering a rebate on utility bills for keeping exceptional trees on a property, which might make sense in light of the significant link between increasing the number of trees in the city and managing stormwater. At Seattle Public Utilities, where wonks extol the benefits of trees as “low-cost, high-benefit solutions,” trees are considered “infrastructure,” and strategic manager Miles Mayhew says we can use plenty: “The more that can be in our landscape, the better off we are.” A study initiated last summer by a federal stimulus grant is currently researching not only canopy cover, but the value of trees to the city in intercepting pollution and stormwater, and the estimated cost to replace each tree. Lisa Ciecko of the Cascade Land Conservancy, which is involved in the project, says that when the estimate is released this winter, it will be in the billions of dollars.

But Todd Myers, environmental director at the Washington Policy Center, a nonprofit Seattle-based think tank that promotes free-market solutions to public policy, disagrees that trees should be treated as city infrastructure. “This is the same city that asks that we pay more in taxes for other types of infrastructure, but when they call a tree infrastructure, they put the cost on one person rather than all of society,” he says. “I think the best of all possible worlds is to say to people, ‘You can do what you want, but here, we have an incentive for you to keep your tree.’”

The Master Builders Association (MBA) of King and Snohomish Counties endorsed the DPD’s most recent proposal, saying that tree-protection regulations make it difficult for developers to do their jobs. (Garrett Huffman, lobbyist for the MBA, declined to be interviewed for this story.) A letter to the city from the MBA and the Seattle–King County Association of Realtors, among other groups, points out that when a builder wants to borrow money to develop a property, a lender sees a large tree as potential lost income. “When Seattle mandates trees of a certain size or species be retained, the property owner loses the development potential of that space, or density, which lowers a property’s value,” the letter reads.

Not all builders agree. Joe McKinstry, a non-MBA member and the owner of Seattle residential building company Joseph McKinstry Construction, says he sees strong DPD rules as a necessary “pain in the ass” that are required to keep some builders on the right track. “The old way of doing it was that you cleared the lot—you just took it all down.” McKinstry compares Seattle’s strong tree regulations to other regulations, such as the Operational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, that initially seemed onerous but have come to be accepted as part of good business practice.

But while some greens might find it tough to summon sympathy for developers forced to build one less townhouse, or even for those private property owners who don’t like their gutters clogged, what about a homeowner who wants to grow a sustainable garden in a yard shadowed by exceptional trees? How about a family who wants to erect a backyard cottage, helping meet the city’s density goals and increasing neighborhood walkability?

Under the current system, those who don’t like the rules sometimes cut illegally, even hacking down or poisoning trees in parks and greenbelts, if they feel the trees impede their view. Nolan Rundquist, city arborist at the Seattle Department of Transportation, says his office is drafting stricter protections for right-of-way trees, including those on parking strips, to “amp up fines” for illegal tree removals. According to Rundquist, cutting laws on public land are hard to enforce. “There’s not a lot we can do about it unless we have a smoking gun.” (Or chainsaw.)

Some groups—SOUFI among them—suggest arborists should be required to register with the city. Matt Mega also believes a permit system might be one way to help enforce current regulations. “It’s about balance,” says Mega. “We can still have personal choice and have some trees.” The question many want answered is: how much of each?

Tree resources
The public-comment phase on proposed DPD regulations is closed, but those who would like to make their voices heard can write Seattle City Council members or contact the Office of Sustainability and Environment via sandra.pintodebader@seattle.gov.

For details on exceptional trees and other facts on permits, visit:

The Department of Planning and Development: seattle.gov/dpd/planning/SeattlesTreeRegulationUpdate/Overview

The Urban Forestry Commission: seattle.gov/urbanforestrycommission