When this man starts talking trees, an urbanist loses their wings
When this man starts talking trees, an urbanist loses their wings screenshot from Seattle Channel

On Tuesday, the city council voted to pass a bill that requires tree service providers to register with the city prior to conducting commercial tree work on private property.

“Let's not have any more trees sawed to death in the middle of the night by chainsaws wielded by unknown tree cutters. Let's daylight these operations on a registry for all to see,” said the bill’s primary sponsor, Councilmember Alex Pedersen, in a committee meeting last week.

The council voted 7 to 0 to support the measure, and Council President Debora Juarez gave special kudos to Pedersen and Councilmember Dan Strauss for working together to “actually get legislation done.”

The registry itself did not ruffle many feathers, but historically the conversation about tree preservation has caused tension between the conservationists and the urbanists in the Emerald City. The occasionally competing goals of the two groups tasked the council with taking a “yes and” approach to tree protection and density.

The city already makes tree service providers register through the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), but that registry only deals with the removal of trees in the public right of way. The bill that passed requires the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection (SDCI) to set up its own registry, and it gives tree service providers until Nov. 10 of this year to sign up for it. According to council central staff, the registry will cost between $295,000 and $470,000, with about half of the money coming from the general fund and the other half from permit fees.

In a meeting last week, Pedersen tried to tack on an amendment that would have added a requirement for a registered tree service provider or Washington state licensed landscape architect to submit a report to the director of SDCI describing how they would try to “maximize retention of trees” in the case of a subdivision or boundary-line adjustment. For the more progressive, pro-density committee members, that amendment set off alarm bells. Strauss appreciated the amendment’s intent, but he said in practice he believed it would impose added costs on housing without any new public benefit.

“I am weary of adding another layer on today because we do know that every time the city imposes a new requirement for permits, it lengthens the permit review times and adds another cost for producing much needed housing in the city,” Strauss said.

Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Tammy Morales joined Strauss in striking down Pedersen’s amendment. They both affirmed that they also appreciated Pedersen’s intent.

Pedersen fell into a common pitfall among staunch conservationists: Prioritizing trees at the potential expense of housing.

According to Laura Loe, executive director of Share The Cities, conservationists have long associated triplexes and quadplexes with tree canopy devastation and thus have a “misplaced anger” with housing development. One example of this happened when the city passed Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA), and much of the dissent worried that increasing density would destroy the urban forest. From her experience, Loe said some of these tree-lovers are genuine, but others are “toxic” and use environmentalism to fight a proxy war against density. With “terrible messaging” from the Tree Murder Song People, some urbanists grew weary that the tree advocates were just NIMBYs in birkenstocks.

“I don't think there's any urbanist that doesn't love trees,” Loe said, adding that she is hopeful urbanists will lend their voice into the conversation as the council looks at future tree protections.

The council’s passage of the registry kicked off a four-pronged approach to beefing up protections for the urban canopy. According to a very snazzy graphic from council central staff, tree-lovers can expect the council to consider the Stronger Tree Protection Ordinance, which requires tree-cutters to replace trees with a diameter of 12” or greater and would increase illegal tree removal penalties by 50%.

Also in the works is a bill to expand the definition of “exceptional trees.” In many circumstances, trees carrying that designation cannot be removed, and the new proposal would create species-by-species size standards for exceptional trees starting as low as 6” in diameter. It would also decrease the overall threshold from 30” to 24”.

Finally, to pay for replanting trees, the Payment for Tree Removal ordinance would charge $436 for the removal of trees larger than 12” in diameter, or $17.87 per square inch of trunk for the removal of exceptional trees.

Department staff created the remaining three proposals, but the council cannot take up the legislation until the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) gives it the thumbs up.

The council’s ongoing effort to retain the urban forest could spark long-standing tension between conservationists and urbanists, but Strauss said in a press release that he is committed to promoting both interests. Even with bad blood between the two groups, Loe said she hopes urbanists will hold the council to their stated “yes and” approach.