Seattle City Council passes new tree ordinance

The law regulating trees on private property hadn't been touched in over a decade. But advocates wonder: Is the new one closer to meeting climate needs?

a person in a yellow coat walking on a sidewalk beneath a tree

A person walks near a tree overgrowing into the street in Phinney Ridge on Thursday, March 30, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

The Seattle City Council voted Tuesday afternoon to pass an updated version of a city ordinance regulating trees on private property, which had not been adjusted since 2009.

The legislation will fully overhaul the ordinance for the first time since the section of code protecting trees was adopted in 2001, years before the climate and housing crises came to dominate both city discourse and priorities. Seattleites have since become aware of the many benefits trees provide, from cooling to improving people’s health and general well-being. The city is losing trees faster than it is replanting them, and is thousands of housing units short to meet the demand of a growing population.

Councilmember Dan Strauss characterizes the bill he sponsored as “a good step forward” for both people concerned about the city’s dwindling urban tree canopy and those anxious to increase housing. 

But community advocates and volunteers who serve on the city commission monitoring urban forestry policy worry other Council members hadn’t had sufficient time since the Mayor’s Office introduced the bill in March to consider whether it meets Seattle’s climate, environmental justice and housing needs. 

The draft tree regulation includes a lot of things tree advocates support, like protection for smaller trees. And it covers a lot more trees this time around: The previous law regulated 17,700 trees, while the new ordinance regulates 70,400, said Chanda Emery of the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections. It also creates a static tree protection zone, which drafters believe will help property owners better understand the regulations. And it creates opportunities for property owners to pay into a fund that plants trees in under-canopied parts of town if they don’t have room to replace trees they remove from their property. 

But the Urban Forestry Commission and tree advocates worry that the legislation so long in the making was rushed through the voting process. 

“I’m not saying no to this policy. I’m just kind of concerned that folks may not have had the chance to fully dig into it, and I want them to make sure they understand and feel good about what they’re voting for because there are still some concerns,” said Josh Morris, a member of the Urban Forestry Commission, before the vote.  

The commission submitted a letter to the City Council earlier this month requesting a delay of a full-council vote to allow Council members time to fully digest the jargony, complex legislation. The commission is joined by groups like Beacon Hill Council, which submitted its own letter requesting a raincheck on the vote this week. 

Beacon Hill Council Chair Maria Batayola has become increasingly concerned about how the city is and isn’t integrating climate- and housing equity-related goals into its development plans. The city of Seattle recently identified Beacon Hill as an area that is particularly susceptible to tree losses, and residents are concerned about gentrification. Batayola believes it’s important to expand housing, but “it doesn’t make sense to build housing for people in places that are unhealthy,” she said. 

She worries the legislation doesn’t fully account for the city’s Green New Deal and other environmental equity goals, and thinks the commission should have been involved with the draft before the Mayor’s office introduced it.

“The crazy-making thing is they’ve been promising this for over four or five years. And now, all of sudden, it’s ‘Hurry up and get it done,’” Batayola said in advance of the vote. “We should pause, integrate [the legislation] into the Green New Deal, and move it forward.”

It’s taken a long time to update the regulations, Strauss says, in part because regulating private property is always difficult. It’s also an emotionally charged issue for people who care about housing and trees.

Councilmember Tammy Morales’s office sent a letter to the Beacon HIll Council acknowledging that a delay of vote might be merited, but chose to vote for the legislation. 

Update: This article was written in advance of the vote, and then updated at 5:07 p.m. on Tuesday, May 23, 2023 to reflect that the draft legislation ultimately passed. 

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