Go hug a tree
  • R.B.
  • Go hug a tree
Some Seattle residents say that a proposal (.pdf) from the city’s Department of Planning and Development to update tree protection codes on private property would only strip large, rare trees off whatever protection they currently have.

But DPD contends that the current rules are no longer working. The department is acting on a 2009 council resolution which asked them to craft new guidelines and incentives that would curb tree removal and retain more trees on private and public properties. DPD spokesperson Bryan Stevens says that the new regulations primarily seek to improve the city's canopy coverage under Seattle’s Urban Forest Management Plan. "We don't think our proposal will lead to more people cutting down their trees," Stevens says.

Currently the City of Seattle doesn’t let you chop down rare trees on your property that are specified by species and size in city code unless you can prove they are hazardous. Of course nobody from DPD is actually going around enforcing this rule—the department is in the middle of a massive furlough for Christ’s sake—so the city depends on snoops and snitches to inform them when someone is breaking the law.

DPD says a permanent prohibition on removing rare trees would be too much of a burden on property owners and leave them with no flexibility to maintain their property. “We want people to get some sunlight if they want to,” Stevens says. “A prohibition doesn’t necessarily work—a lot of times people will remove the tree before it becomes big enough” to meet the criteria of a rare species. So DPD is recommending removing all protection for rare trees. In fact, under DPD’s proposal, there is no real protection for trees except during development, in which case you need a permit for chopping down trees.

“We are outraged with what has been proposed,” Steve Zemke, a leader of Save the Trees Seattle, a neighborhood coalition that complained DPD drafted the tree guidelines without any public outreach. “Without a permit system, we won’t be able to track what is being lost... It’s a huge step in the wrong direction."

A whole forest after the jump.

But Stevens says that that DPD is not worried about losing canopy coverage because it is increasing tree requirements for redevelopment of single-family homes, and providing incentives to property owners to retain trees. For example, if you choose to preserve or plant a large tree on your property, then a tree credit system will let you get away with not planting smaller trees.

The sticking point is whether or not DPD should require property owners to apply for a permit to remove trees when they are not redeveloping their lots. At present, private-property owners are allowed cut down three trees per year without permits. Although council specifically asked DPD to explore a permit requirement, DPD rejected it because they feel it's not enforceable, expensive ($100 per permit), and once again, a burden on property owners.

Nothing is set in stone yet—final legislation will go before the council next year after a public-comment period that runs through October (An open house has been scheduled for Sept. 21). But a small group showed up at an August 17 City Council Regional Development and Sustainable Committee meeting to criticize the planning department's plans. A few cried murder (“DPD slaughters trees," one person said) and others compared DPD with the Chinese government.

Some tree advocates called for DPD to be removed from all tree oversight, arguing that its proposal was at odds with the council resolution. "Give it to someone without the word development in the title," said John Dixon, a tree preservationist. "This proposal is a property rights dream document—the underlying belief is that trees are at the disposal of the owner of that property and not a community benefit."

Maple Leaf community activist David Miller said he was disappointed that DPD's proposal had ignored a lot of previous work neighborhood councils had done with the city to preserve trees. "Trees are infrastructure, not just pretty pretty green things," Miller said, urging for a strong science-based tree policy. Tree preservationists believe that larger trees help in storm water retention and filter toxic pollutants from the air.

Save the Trees thinks DPD’s proposal is so out of whack that it’s writing its own version. One of the demands is requiring property owners to get a permit before cutting any trees whose trunks are more than six inches thick. The group believes that any time owners want to remove a tree, they must notify their neighbors two weeks in advance by posting a notice on the site and the Internet so that people can see what trees are being removed.

At the end of the day, DPD’s explanation for eliminating protection for exceptional trees or why it’s opposed to a permit system isn’t very convincing. Come on, folks, we need something more than "...big burden on residents." Another problem: DPD is drafting these new tree regulations to help expand Seattle’s urban tree canopy to 30 percent by 2037. As of 2007, we have managed to get to 23 percent. We still have some serious catching up to do, and although the tree credit system, et al are excellent ideas, the lack of any tree regulation for dealing with areas outside development won't do much to help.

The city's Urban Forestry Commission has raised the question that with less than 0.5 percent of city land being developed in any given year, why has DPD abandoned all attempts to regulate tree removal on the remaining 99.5 percent of parcels in the city. “We find it unacceptable,” said Urban Forestry Commission chair Elizabeta Stacishin-Moura.