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Seattle City Council passes tree ordinance after years of debate


The Seattle City Council on Tuesday passed a sweeping tree ordinance that will regulate and protect tens of thousands more trees and create new requirements to replace those that are cut down.

After more than an hour of public comment with arborists, residents and developers testifying for and against the bill, Seattle council members passed the ordinance 6-1. Council member Alex Pedersen voted against.

Several council members said that while the ordinance is not perfect, the bill is better than the current code and that they intend to keep working to improve the law before it is implemented in 60 days.

“This is a very tough vote for me,” said Councilwoman Tammy Morales, saying many of her constituents feel they didn’t get an adequate chance to weigh in.

Although council members disagree on whether the tree ordinance adequately protects trees versus regulating them, the new ordinance would affect between 88,100 and 175,000 trees, far more than the 17,700 protected under the current code.

The executive order has been in the works for many years, as the issue of housing affordability and climate adaptation is at the back of the mind.

While the rules for a tree depend on zoning and the size of the tree, the new ordinance broadly extends protections to trees 24 inches in diameter or wider and creates new designations and rules for smaller trees.

The ordinance dictates any felled tree that is more than a foot wide must be replaced by one or more new trees and must eventually produce the same amount of crown as before.

If the tree cannot be replaced or is too burdensome to replace, the ordinance also allows property owners and developers to pay into a central fund, which is expected to generate $191,000 by 2024.

According to Seattle’s latest tree canopy assessment, 47% of the city’s tree canopy cover is in residential areas, and 42% is in public areas such as rights of way, natural areas or parks.

Under the previous tree regulations, property owners in residential areas could remove up to three trees less than 30 inches wide each year in any type of private property. Under the new ordinance, only two trees less than a foot wide can be removed in a three-year period, unless it is considered dangerous or in a downtown or industrial area.

Mayor Bruce Harrell also issued an ordinance in March requiring three trees to replace every healthy tree removed from city land. Trees that died or are dangerous must be replaced with two.

Seattle’s Urban Forestry Commission asked council members to delay Tuesday’s vote until July. In support, Alex Pedersen suggested postponing the vote until June, but failed to get enough council support.

In the past, Pedersen has called the ordinance a “death sentence for hundreds of trees throughout our city” and a “profit protection law.”

Councilwoman Lisa Herbold also supported the proposal, saying she wanted to further improve tree canopy preservation in low-income neighborhoods.

The bill has the support of the Sierra Club Seattle, Habitat for Humanity and the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County. The Beacon Hill Council and Birds Connect Seattle, formerly called Seattle Audubon, had also asked for a delay in the vote.

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