New tree protection ordinance could reduce canopy coverage citywide

Opponents urging city to keep existing protections

New tree protection ordinance could reduce canopy coverage citywide

New tree protection ordinance could reduce canopy coverage citywide

A public hearing to address proposed revisions to tree protections in Seattle is set for Sept. 5, and the city council can expect pushback by local conservationists.

“What they did was they removed a lot of the provisions in the existing ordinance, which, if they put that back in, plus what they added new, they would actually have a really good ordinance,” says Steve Zemke, chair for the Coalition for a Stronger Tree Ordinance — a project of Friends of Seattle’s Urban Forest and TreePAC.

The tree protection ordinance is being led by City Councilmember Rob Johnson through the Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee, and includes a number of positive changes, Zemke said, but also would result in a greater loss of trees as currently written.

Seattle’s Urban Forestry Commission shares many of those same concerns, and has drafted a letter to the PLUZ Committee that may be sent to councilmembers following an extraordinary meeting slated for late August or early September.

The ordinance positively increases penalties for illegal tree removal, reduces the 24-inch diameter at breast height (DBH) threshold for classifying a significant tree to 6 inches, and includes fees for tree replacements and measures to ensure their survival, according to the draft letter.

But the ordinance also removes protections for exceptional trees and groves, which is expected to result in “the loss of a substantial number of large trees and their replacement with smaller trees, leading to reduction, not increases in the city’s tree canopy,” according to the draft letter.

Zemke said part of that has to do with minor and major permits for tree removals and how that relates to canopy cover goals established in the city’s Urban Forest Stewardship Plan.

If a single-family lot is zoned with a goal of 33 percent coverage and has 55 percent coverage presently, he said, a developer could decrease that canopy coverage to 33 percent without having to replace the trees removed. The goal for multifamily zones is 20 percent. An undeveloped lot with 100 percent tree canopy, Zemke argues, could be reduced to 20 percent with no tree replacements required under the new ordinance.

“If we can’t save most of these trees, let’s at least try to get them planted somewhere else,” said Zemke, who favors a simple 2-to-1 tree replacement .

A major permit, which would be required if removing trees brought a canopy below the established goal by the city, would require a tree survey and arborist report. Each permit would have a set fee.

Zemke said he believes an environmental impact study should be conducted to fully assess the impacts of the new tree protection ordinance, and that the city should focus on tree removals, and not canopies, which include additional vegetation like large bushes in measurements.

“Using calculations of canopy coverage percentage on single lots is problematic,” reads the draft letter by the Urban Forestry Commission. “Canopy coverage is a rough approximation that serves city-wide goals as a general aggregate metric. It is likely not as effective on the single lot scale. Some challenges include distinguishing trees and shrubs, and the treating all tree canopy regardless of significance of the tree the same.”

The commission is also urging the ordinance be amended to require that all permit applications provide the size and species of the trees slated for removal or replacement.

City staff has started a SEPA review of the legislation, and the public hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 5, in council chambers at city hall, 600 Fourth Ave. Written comments can be sent to Noah An in Johnson’s office at, or by mail to Rob Johnson at 600 4th Ave. 2nd Floor, PO Box 34025, Seattle, WA, 98124-4025.