street treesOn Monday, April 29, the Council unanimously adopted a new Street Tree ordinance. This is the first revision of Seattle’s Street Tree Ordinance since 1961, and the result of several years of work by the Seattle Department of Transportation in cooperation with other Departments, Council staff, and the Urban Forestry Commission.

This is the first of three major actions that the Council will take to reshape and revise Seattle’s policies around trees. My goal is to create a comprehensive set of policies that will be focused on tree stewardship and restoring the urban forest, and to replace our somewhat fragmented approach with one that has a more cohesive direction and clearer ecological orientation.

In July, we will adopt a revised Urban Forest Management Plan, which we will rename the Urban Forest Stewardship Plan. This plan outlines how the City will improve and maintain the urban forest on City land, and how we will encourage and support residents and businesses in planting and taking care of trees on private property. In the first part of 2014 we will consider a land use ordinance outlining regulations for preserving, maintaining, and planting trees on private property.

The Street Tree ordinance covers the more than 200,000 trees that are planted on City rights-of-way. Trees planted and growing in public places are an important part of the urban forest, the health of which provides a substantial contribution to the quality of life in Seattle. The preservation, retention, protection, and planting of trees and shrubs reduces the impacts of storm water runoff and helps to replenish ground water supply; aids in reducing air and noise pollution and energy consumption; sequesters global warming pollution; maintains and increases property values; provides habitat for wildlife; and enhances the aesthetic environment.

Many of these trees were planted by private individuals, while others were planted by the City. No matter who planted them, they exist on property held in trust for the public by the City. Because of this, they share a unique legal situation: the City has regulatory authority over these trees, but private property owners who abut the right-of-way have responsibility for maintaining any tree not planted by the city. One of the purposes of this ordinance is to clarify what this shared arrangement means and how the City manages it.

The ordinance specifies that “No person shall destroy, kill, injure, mutilate, or deface a street tree or vegetation in a public place by any means.” It also requires that “No person shall plant, remove, or perform major pruning on any street tree without first obtaining a Street Use permit from the Department of Transportation…” This regulation defines the core relationship between the City and property owners.

The ordinance also provides that only tree species approved in the Department of Transportation’s tree list or by the Director may be planted as street trees. It requires that major pruning of street trees conform to a set of standards designed to protect the health of the trees, and that pruning must be done by registered Tree Service Providers, who have been trained to meet these standards.

The ordinance sets out a City policy to retain and preserve street trees whenever possible. Removing street trees is only allowed if they are hazards to public health or safety, are in poor condition, or conflict with construction. Street trees that are removed must be replaced, and public notice is required before the tree is removed unless there is an imminent danger to public health or safety.

Private property owners are responsible for maintaining street trees and other vegetation unless the Department of Transportation has taken on maintenance responsibility. They are required to be pruned to prevent obstructing signals, lights, and views of traffic at intersections, with a minimum height clearance of 8 feet above the sidewalk and 14 feet above the street. Property owners can be required to remove trees that are hazardous or causing unsafe conditions.

The new Street Tree Ordinance is a step forward in the restoration and maintenance of Seattle’s urban forest. It will improve both the health and condition of our streets, and create new assets that will make our neighborhoods healthier and safer.