Inside the tumultuous debate behind Seattle’s tree ordinance

The debate over more density or more tree canopy got personal as developers clashed with the city’s Urban Forestry Commission. 

One of the many tree canopies lining Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood.

One of the many tree canopies lining Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. Seattle’s Urban Forestry Commission helps guide the mayor and city on the protection and cultivation of the city’s tree canopy. (Caroline Walker Evans for Crosscut)

While the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties tried first to appeal, then to shape Seattle’s proposed Tree Protection Ordinance last year, one of its members staged another, parallel attack. Developer Rob McVicars’ target was not the ordinance but a member of the Urban Forestry Commission, the panel of experts and community representatives that advises Seattle’s mayor and city council on tree policies. 

These two attacks came at a critical juncture in the city’s long struggle over whether its land-use rules can and should protect existing trees while encouraging more housing. 

McVicars’ unsubstantiated allegations served to take down a forestry commissioner whom others on the commission regarded as one of its most dedicated, able and effective members, but whom he viewed as a usurper in what he called the commission’s “developer position.” Without providing evidence or acknowledging their own five-year-old personal dispute, McVicars broadly accused the commissioner, David Moehring, of waging anti-developer vendettas and profiting from them.

That coup was just the first salvo in an ongoing crackdown on a volunteer panel that seems to have taken its mission as the city’s arboreal conscience too seriously for some City Hall tastes.

McVicars presented himself as just a “townhouse builder here in Seattle” when he appeared before the City Council Land Use Committee in May 2022, as it was about to confirm Moehring’s reappointment to a second three-year term on the commission. He didn’t mention to the committee that his firm, Build Sound LLC, was a co-appellant in the Master Builders’ appeal of the draft ordinance, nor that he was one of seven steering-group members who signed the association’s letter proposing the city remove protection from nearly every privately owned tree in the city. He did suggest, however, that he had a broader motive for attacking Moehring, a UW staff architect and planner who occupied a seat that developers saw as their own.

The Forestry Commission’s bylaws reserve that seat for a “representative of either the development community, including developers, builders, architects, or realtors with experience in [LEED] projects, [or] from a non-city utility.” The commission itself pointed out, in a letter to Mayor Bruce Harrell protesting Moehring’s removal, that “with 30 years’ experience in the planning, design, and construction field, including projects developed under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design,” he was “well qualified and suited to the role of Development Representative.” 

Following a developer’s allegations, UW architect and former Forestry Commission member David Moehring’s confirmation for a second term was delayed seven months then retracted. (Courtesy of David Moehring)

McVicars argued otherwise when, in May 2022, he stepped forward, like a wedding crasher when the minister says “speak up or forever hold your peace,” just as the City Council’s Land Use Committee was about to confirm Harrell’s reappointment of Moehring.

Until then, appointment to the Forestry Commission, as to other city commissions, had been a routine, chummy affair. Its 13 seats are allocated to various professions and communities deemed to have pertinent expertise and experience — from an arborist, hydrologist and economist to an “Environmental Justice representative.” The mayor and City Council each appoint six members and the commissioners themselves elect one. In practice, the commission would recommend appointees and the mayor and council would appoint them.

That changed when McVicars urged that Moehring’s reappointment be delayed or killed, on the grounds that “Mr. Moehring. as far as I can tell, has no development experience whatsoever and through his history of actions shows himself to be very anti-development.” McVicars claimed Moehring had “a lengthy history of appealing land use decisions all around the city.” 

And, he contended, Moehring filed these appeals after permits were issued and construction was underway, “when you can’t stop the development that’s already in place. … So it just becomes a thorn in the side for poking in developers. … At that point, it’s just to cause chaos.” He hinted darkly that Moehring’s real aim was financial. “I know there’s been a history of taking payment to drop these appeals, which I find distasteful and disheartening and undermines the credibility of any committee he stands on.”

More of the story

But the credibility questions in this twisting little tale run in several other directions.

“Anti-development” is a label commonly thrown at advocates for tree protection and canopy cover, and at activists who try to block bulldozers and chainsaws from taking out arboreal landmarks. Even some city officials privately opine that tree protection is just a cover for NIMBYism.

David Moehring filed an appeal against the The Build Sound Project Townhome Developments in Magnolia, claiming that the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections was allowing the developers to circumvent subdivision rules, building more townhouses than the law allowed and avoiding other code requirements. (Caroline Walker Evans for Crosscut) 

You’ll get a different picture if you spend time talking with battle-scarred tree advocates like Steve Zemke and Sandy Shettler of the Friends of Seattle’s Urban Forest and Jim Davis of The Last 6000, or the new generation of tree huggers following in their wake. Some tree defenders, like arborists Scott Baker and Michael Oxman and retired arborist Tina Cohen, are experts who don’t want to lend their expertise to urban clear-cutting. Their passion for trees may make them suspicious of both lot-scraping developers and “urbanists” reciting density mantras, but they don’t pretend to love trees because they hate development.

All sides say they want more density to accommodate Seattle’s predicted population growth, and more trees to meet its 30 percent canopy goal (from which it’s been backsliding). The Master Builders, however, want that canopy on public rather than private land; tree advocates contend there aren’t enough curb strips and park acres in the city to make up losses from future development. And park trees won’t shade sweltering homes as the climate warms.

Moehring himself has long insisted he’s for “more density and more tree canopy” and that it’s possible to “achieve both at the same time” with smarter design. As capital and space planner for UW’s growing Bothell campus, he knows a few things about fitting things in; he often redraws developers’ site plans to show that, by rotating buildings and making other adjustments, they can get their allotted square footage and preserve the trees they want to cut. 

Moehring happened to be attending the May 2022 King County Land Use Committee meeting where McVicars sprang his allegations; he announced he’d dialed in to offer two proposals for the city’s comprehensive plan. One would specify canopy goals for each of the city’s eight “management units” — neighborhood residential, mid-rise and commercial zones, parks, etc. – not just citywide, to ensure “more accountability.” The other would dramatically upzone Interbay to allow more density on a rapid-transit route.

Zemke, the founder of Friends of Seattle’s Urban Forest and a former Urban Forestry commissioner, believes Moehring’s expertise made him a target: “The developers suddenly see his being in the position as an issue — here’s a guy who knows what he’s talking about just as the debate over the new tree ordinance is heating up,” Zemke said.

A letter carrier walks along the shaded sidewalk to deliver mail in the Magnolia neighborhood. (Caroline Walker Evans for Crosscut) 

In January 2023, McVicars responded to the Forestry Commission’s defense of Moehring with his own letter, copied to Land Use Committee chair Dan Strauss, amplifying and recasting what he’d said to the committee back in May. He now insisted he had intervened not because Moehring failed to represent “the interest of the industry” but “as a citizen [who didn’t think] it was proper for him to sit on any City of Seattle commission.” McVicars told his side of a dispute dating back five years, when Moehring filed an appeal against McVicars’ plan to subdivide the lot on which he was building four townhouses across the street from Moehring’s townhouse. 

He claimed Moehring knew his appeal was futile because the building permit had already been issued, and that the only impact the appeal “could have would be on my ability to sell the units.” And that when he and his attorney met with Moehring to try to induce him to drop the appeal, Moehring’s attorney demanded an “egregious” $45,000 settlement. Instead, McVicars recounted, he “begrudgingly” wrote a check for $13,000.

Worse, McVicars alleged, “Mr. Moehring's history of appealing Land Use permit applications is extensive, at least 14, to my knowledge,” all done “to benefit [himself] personally.”  

Moehring replies

Moehring gives a different account, which the city hearing examiner’s case files largely confirm: From 2016 to 2020, he filed seven appeals of projects near his Magnolia home, starting with McVicars’, and one in Ballard that friends asked him to help with. (Three of the Magnolia appeals were actually against a single big project split into three parcels.) Moehring’s appeals contended that the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections was allowing the developers to circumvent subdivision rules, building more townhouses than the law allowed and avoiding other code requirements.

But along the way, the city repeatedly changed its code to reduce the lot space required per townhouse, from 2,200 to 1,600 to 1,300 (and now 1,050) square feet, undercutting his argument. Moehring settled and withdrew three appeals; hearing examiners denied the others. The Ballard appeal and one Magnolia case were thrown out because Moehring didn’t live close enough to have standing.  He insists his efforts weren’t frivolous or malicious: “I’ve only appealed things that are appealable. I’m a black-and-white person. If a code says something, that’s what should be done.” 

The publicly available case files don’t reveal what was said in his settlement conference with McVicars, which was sealed by a since-expired nondisclosure agreement, but Moehring says, and his then-lawyer affirms, that they never demanded $45,000 or any other “egregious” sum. Rather, Moehring recalls, McVicars’ lawyer made an offer, the attorneys haggled, and they settled at $13,000, $10,000 of which went to his legal bill. “I can only speak in general terms,” says attorney Brandon Gribben, who represented the other developers against whom Moehring filed appeals, and also represented the Master Builders in their appeal of the tree ordinance. “Developers have holding costs. Sometimes it’s cheaper to settle than to pay attorney’s fees and wait to go to the hearing examiner. … It’s my understanding Mr. Moehring accepted money in some cases.”

A row of new street trees is planted in front of the Mirra Homes Project Townhome Development in Magnolia, as required by the city’s tree protection ordinance. (Caroline Walker Evans for Crosscut) 

McVicars, who declared that “the statements I have made are factual and can be supported with documentation upon request,” did not respond to repeated requests for the documentation (and for comment). The Master Builders Association also would not comment on the issue.

The official response

Councilmember Strauss was nonplussed when McVicars made his allegations. Noting that he could not immediately validate them, he postponed the confirmation until “the next meeting” so his committee could “fully understand the situation we are in.” 

“That sounds certainly reasonable,” Moehring replied, suggesting Strauss look into the accusations and what might be motivating them. Strauss offered Moehring some reassurance: “If those are all the details and it really was as presented I won’t have a problem moving this appointment forward. … I have enjoyed working with you and I appreciate your perspective.”

But no more details emerged, and the appointment never moved forward. Two months later Moehring, expressing “frustration” at the continuing delay while the Land Use Committee appointed or reappointed 18 members to other city commissions, gave notice that it was “time to take a break from the UFC perhaps for the next couple months.”

I asked Strauss if he’d investigated the allegations: “I did not. I’m not a lawyer. It’s not for me to determine. It was a mayoral appointment. … You’d have to ask them.” Harrell’s communications chief, Jamie Housen, recently confirmed that the mayor’s office did not investigate, either.

The silence continued until December, nearly seven months after McVicars’ appearance, when Harrell’s legal affairs liaison, Chase Munroe, called to inform Moehring that the administration was retracting his reappointment. Administration representatives have since given various reasons for that decision, and even denied making it at all.

“We just decided we’re going to make a change of direction,” Moehring recalls Munroe saying. When  asked for comment, Munroe referred Crosscut to Housen.

An email trail shows that earlier in December, Marco Lowe, the city’s chief operating officer, whose portfolio includes land use and housing, told City Councilmember Alex Pedersen that the administration was considering retracting Moehring’s reappointment because “he might not be considered a developer” and because this would be his third term and commissioners normally just serve two. Pedersen sent Lowe documentation showing that Moehring “fit squarely” the position’s requirements and had in fact served only one term (a partial one at that). Nevertheless, Lowe still cited the third-term issue when Crosscut spoke with him this past June.

Now the administration says that Moehring wasn’t pushed — he jumped. In late June, responding to inquiries, Housen said via email that, following “a dispute at the City Council committee meeting between Mr. Moehring and others in the community” (no one other than McVicars came forward, at least publicly) and the pausing of his reappointment, “Mr. Moehring then emailed city leaders stating that he was stepping away from the commission, during which time his initial appointment expired. Since Mr. Moehring’s term had expired, the position was open and a new community member who applied through the public portal was appointed.”

This explanation does not square with the timeline. Moehring’s appointment formally expired on March 31, 2022, one month before Harrell reappointed him, two months before McVicars intervened as the council was about to confirm him, four months before he announced he would take a break, and nine months before the administration moved to replace him.

In January 2023, the administration’s new appointee came before the council for confirmation: David Baker, a real estate development project manager with Homestead Community Land Trust and former project manager with the Detroit Land Bank Authority, who came to Seattle two years ago. Baker didn’t attend his Jan. 6 confirmation hearing, as commission appointees are asked to do, but Strauss, who has otherwise insisted on meeting appointees before confirming them, didn’t sweat that point. Baker was speedily and almost unanimously confirmed; Pedersen abstained, pending a chance to ask his views on tree canopy. 

Seattle’s tree ordinance

Meanwhile, Seattle’s long-running tree wars came to a head. In March, Team Harrell introduced a radically revised draft ordinance endorsed by developers and roundly criticized by advocates. The Urban Forestry Commission complained that it had been largely excluded from a flawed process that disregarded city procedures and equity rules, a charge Strauss and administration officials dispute. It recommended revisions and urged postponing the vote for a month to allow further review and tuning. Strauss insisted his committee’s schedule wouldn’t allow any delay and, in late May, pushed the ordinance through.

At the same time, two new candidates for the Urban Forestry Commission underwent a partial reprise of Moehring’s ordeal. In March, after vetting and interviews, the commission forwarded its recommendations for two vacant or soon-to-be-vacant seats: Monica Szarvas for its “urban ecologist” position, a mayoral appointment, and Kersti Muul as “wildlife biologist,” a council appointment. Patricia Bakker, the Forestry Commission’s staff coordinator and City Hall liaison, wrote to both as though their appointments were done deals, as they would have been before: “I will follow up with you when we have a timeline for next steps in the process, which will include appointment confirmation at a meeting of City Council’s Land Use Committee. …Congratulations! We look forward to working with you on the Commission.”

And then … nothing. The administration and council did not act on the appointments in May and June, or give any indication as to when or how they would act.

Both appointees had extensive credentials and experience. Szarvas, who works as a biologist for Snohomish County, is a certified arborist as well as urban ecologist. Muul, also a former consulting arborist, is a forest-certified marbled murrelet field biologist who also conducts marine-mammal rescue and investigation and has taught micro- and field biology at local colleges. 

But both have qualities that might land them in the development lobby’s sights. Szarvas works in the field ensuring that developers in fast-growing Snohomish County account for wetlands and trees in their way. “They might know who I am,” she says. Muul has long been an outspoken advocate for trees, which she notes are essential to the birds she studies.

On June 22, Szarvas received more email from Bakker, notifying her that the mayor’s office had “decided to move forward with appointing another candidate” and suggesting she apply for the commission’s arborist position when it opens up next spring. In July, the council confirmed that other candidate, Alicia Kellogg. Strauss welcomed her effusively: “Thank you for your service! Glad to have someone tough as nails joining the commission.” As a landscape architect for King County Parks and Natural Areas, Kellogg seems less likely to alarm developers.

Muul meanwhile floats in limbo, as Moehring did — told, when she asks about her nomination, that the council has been too busy to take it up. Bakker recently told the commission Strauss had asked her to brief him on the candidates for that position and two others that remain open, one mayoral appointment and another, for an economist or financial professional, that the commission itself is empowered to appoint.

Joshua Morris, who co-chairs the Forestry Commission, says he has no beef with Kellogg’s selection: “She’s great, extremely qualified and motivated.” But he’s puzzled at the city’s handling of Urban Forestry appointments, and at Strauss’ sudden expression of interest. “It feels like an extra layer of scrutiny for the commission,” he says. “One wonders why anyone would want to give it more scrutiny.”

UPDATE: This story has been updated to remove a reference to the debate over a specific Seattle tree, as the passage did not meet Crosscut standards of fairness and included derogatory and inflammatory accusations against the Snoqualmie Tribe. 

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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.