Think Out Loud

Some Seattle tree advocates oppose ordinance aimed at managing the city’s urban forest

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
July 24, 2023 5:16 p.m. Updated: July 31, 2023 9:30 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, July 24

A Seattle tree ordinance passed earlier this year has frustrated some tree advocates in the city. Onlookers say developers played too big a role in helping craft the policy. The city’s own Urban Forestry Commission, a panel that provides expertise on tree policy and regulation, says it didn’t have enough time to review the proposal. Still some tree experts say that the ordinance provides better protection than what was in place before. We dig into these issues with Eric Scigliano, an independent writer and author. He covered this story for InvestigateWest.


Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Seattle passed a new tree ordinance this spring. Some tree experts say it’ll provide better protection for the city’s canopy than the old rules. Critics say that developers played too big a role in helping to craft the policy. The city’s own Urban Forestry Commission said it didn’t have enough time to review the proposal. Eric Scigliano is an independent writer and author. He covered this recently for Investigate West, and he joins us now. It’s good to have you on the show.

Eric Scigliano: Good to be here, Dave.

Miller: I want to start with what’s at stake here. I’ve seen this described in The Seattle Times, for example, as a conflict between housing affordability and climate resiliency. Do you see it that way?

Scigliano: That really sounds like a simplification. Both sides in the argument, that is those who want to remove tree restrictions in order to make building and development easier and more efficient and more profitable, and those who defend the trees, kind of put on the climate mantle, argue that they are climate defenders. The developers, because they say that more density is the only way we can house people efficiently and stop sprawl and all the driving and other climate impact that brings. The tree defenders because they note that trees are the most efficient way to shade cities, prevent heat islands, reduce air conditioning use, which only makes the ambient temperature outside hotter, and of course, adds to energy consumption, and that, with careful planning, it’s possible to preserve trees and increase density.

Miller: What were the rules like before the new ordinance passed? I mean, before this multi-year effort that finally did result in new rules?

Scigliano: The old ordinance, which was an interim ordinance adopted in 2009, specified levels of trees by kind of qualitative designations: ‘Exceptional Trees’ were the really large ones, followed by ‘Significant Trees.’ And developers had to go through some hoops and prove some necessity to remove them for building.

The new ordinance essentially removes those hoops. It makes it much easier to remove the trees if developers show that the trees and their root protection areas would interfere with the building coverage that they are allowed to have and they don’t have to go through a design and negotiation process to fit their buildings in with the trees…to get the predictability and the clarity that they want. It definitely makes it easier to remove even the largest of trees for construction.

Miller: This is one of the confusing aspects of this ordinance, and I should say that it’s dozens of pages now. It’s a lot of pages of city rules regarding trees. But my understanding was that it included more trees and trees with smaller diameters in the umbrella group that actually has protection. But you’re saying at the same time, the new rules have also made it easier for developers to chop down certain trees?

Scigliano: It’s easier to chop down the really big ones that were designated before, and are designated now, what will now be called the ‘Tier Two’ and ‘Tier Three’ classes of trees, those with trunk diameters 24 inches and above and 12 to 24 inches. What the new ordinance does is it extends protection to another size of trees, but really for homeowners that is for existing properties that are not developing. So, it  requires more trees to be protected on existing homeowners plots and makes it easier to remove those trees and bigger trees when construction is done.

It’s kind of transferring the burden of protection from plots that are getting developed to those that aren’t getting developed, as well as to city properties like parks.


Miller: You wrote about a party that you went to, a pretty triumphant party as I read it, the annual party put on by the Seattle chapter of a group called the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. Who was there, and what was the scene?

Scigliano: Well, it was called the Annual Mixer of the Master Builders, Seattle Builders Council and an elected officials reception, but it had something extra. There was an exuberant ceremony giving out about 20 tree shaped awards, very cheap things made in Romania. So apparently they planned well ahead for this, and this party came just nine days after the passage of the tree ordinance in late May.

The people invited and honored with their tree trophies included not just members of the Builders Association who worked on the issue and their officers, but attorneys who worked on it and city officials from the Department of Construction and Inspections which drafted the code and enforces the rules, from the mayor’s office, city council members and their aides, and people from several other departments.

Miller: What role did developers have in creating the final rules as approved?

Scigliano: That’s the subject of some speculation, some pretty heated accusations by the tree advocates and you can kind of parse it indirectly. One tell was that at the party in the ceremony, the emcee, the Master Builders Government Affairs director, called out one officer of the group, saying that what’s called the 85% rule is his ‘brainchild.’ The 85% rule establishes a set figure of guaranteed hard space coverage on lots redeveloped for townhouses and small apartments, which alot of…

Miller: Does that mean that if there are trees that make it so less than 85% of the land is buildable or could have concrete or some human built thing, it gives developers the ability to chop down the tree that is preventing that 85% from being built on?

Scigliano: Yes. Or if they keep the tree, it allows some big reductions in the walkways, amenity areas, parking and side yards that they have to preserve. But it gives them the option of chopping it down and replanting it elsewhere or paying an in lieu fee that the city can then use to plant trees elsewhere.

Miller: What else is happening, going forward, in terms of tree policy in the city of Seattle?

Scigliano: Well, the opponents are certainly organizing too and it would not be surprising to see that they sue, seeking changes in the ordinance. The builders may not be happy and I should say, they’re not talking publicly about it at all. But there are several provisions they don’t like, including one kind of a safety valve or a ‘show forest,’ a Potemkin forest, allowing absolute protection of a small list, about 300 designated heritage trees, under another program, which was just supposed to be honorary. And those have pretty absolute protection unless they’re hazardous, and that’s already prevented the  redevelopment of one property; the developers had said they were ‘ok’ with keeping that, but they didn’t want any more heritage trees designated. So that might be one more flash point.

You can be pretty sure that the debates are not over, and they may even become an issue in coming city council elections.

Miller: Eric Scigliano, thanks very much.

Scigliano: Thank you, Dave.

Miller: Eric Scigliano is an independent Writer and Author whose work has appeared in Politico and The Atlantic. He joined us to talk about the city of Seattle’s new rules regarding when you can cut down trees and when you cannot.

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