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Seattle tree law could be getting a revision

A proposed update to the city’s Tree Protection Ordinance would ideally create a more streamlined, equitable framework

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Seattle, the Emerald City within the Evergreen State, is known for having more nature at its residents’ doorsteps than the typical big city. The city has a jumble of protections in place to keep it that way—but recent reports find that not only are the current laws confusing, but not all Seattle residents get to enjoy the city’s canopy.

Late last week, City Councilor Rob Johnson announced the beginning to reforms going on behind the scenes for months: an updated Tree Protection Ordinance that would, ideally, streamline Seattle’s processes for protecting trees and gather better data through a permitting process.

The original Tree Protection Ordinance, passed a decade ago, governs trees of a certain size throughout the city. Various zoning laws affect trees, too—for example, “exceptional” trees in a low-rise zone will trigger a streamlined design review process.

But the current city processes are far from perfect. A city reportanalyzed by Investigate West last week—found a sharp racial disparity between neighborhoods that were able to take part in the city’s famous tree cover and those that weren’t. For example, Investigate West recaps, Chinatown-International District, which has a population that’s 80 percent nonwhite, has some of the lowest tree cover in the whole city—less than 10 percent tree canopy cover, compared to the citywide 28 percent cover.

The current laws around trees are also confusing, with nine different city departments managing trees, according to Johnson. And it’s hard to proactively protect those trees, as in the West Seattle clear-cutting case or with trees on private land, prompting Seattle tree advocacy groups, including the city-appointed Urban Forestry Commission, to call for reforms, reported KUOW.

The updated ordinance “would create stronger stewardship of the trees we have, allow our canopy to keep pace with growth and greater density, and plant more trees in neighborhoods that lack them: poor areas and communities of color,” according to an information sheet from Johnson’s office.

The proposal would make any tree-related interaction in the city at most a three-step process. All tree-related permitting would be streamlined to one online portal, so nobody would have to dig around for the right department. A permit would be required to cut down any tree more than 12 inches in diameter, so the city can better keep track of its tree cover.

Finally, those cutting down trees would have a choice similar to developers under mandatory housing affordability: the person or group removing the tree can either choose to plant a tree somewhere else or choose to pay into a “tree offset” fund. The money from the fund could go toward planting trees where the city has less tree cover.

Our city’s trees are essential infrastructure that provide habitat, prepare for more extreme weather events due to climate change, and improve public health through cleaner air, water, and privacy,” said Johnson in a statement. “As a city, we need to update how we manage our urban forest by streamlining the process and adding transparency.”

The city’s current tree cover, 28 percent, is just 2 percent short of a goal set in 2007 to have 30 percent tree cover by 2037.

“It is paramount that this goal be advanced under the lens of environmental equity,” continued Johnson. “If [Seattle] reaches this goal but wealthier and whiter neighborhoods continue to disproportionately experience the benefits of trees when compared to communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, then we have not done our job. We need to ensure all communities are clean, healthy and resilient.”

The Seattle City Council Planning, Land Use, and Zoning Committee will first discuss the ordinance on May 16.