The Seattle City Council, in partnership with Mayor Bruce Harrell, passed a significant Tree Protection Ordinance. This legislation is a comprehensive approach to preserving, protecting, and expanding Seattle's urban canopy so the city can protect more trees while creating the housing stock that is desperately needed.
SEATTLE – Councilmember Dan Strauss (District 6- Northwest Seattle) Chair of the Land Use Committee, in collaboration with Mayor Bruce Harrell, has passed a new, stronger Tree Protection Ordinance to safeguard our urban canopy, combat climate change, and create a more sustainable future for the Emerald City. This ordinance is a comprehensive approach to preserving, protecting, and expanding Seattle’s urban canopy so the city can protect more trees while creating the housing stock that is desperately needed.
The region’s recent heat waves also demonstrate the need for safeguarding our urban canopy. The new Tree Protection Ordinance protections include several key features that make this version stronger than the previous code. The legislation:
- Expands protections to a total of 175,000 trees across the City; the previous code only protected approximately 17,700 trees.
- Creates a 4-tier system to categorize our city’s trees and designate different protections for each tier. Heritage trees are tier 1 and removal is prohibited unless the tree is hazardous. This tiered system also expands the definition of “exceptional” trees so that 24’ trees are included; the previous requirement was 30’.
- Establishes a new mandate requiring new developments to include street trees in their plans, helping to increase the overall tree canopy in our city while improving the quality of our urban environment.
- Increases penalties for illegal street cutting.
- Expands Seattle Public Utilities (SPU)’s Trees for Neighborhoods Program that has already helped Seattleites plant over 13,400 trees in their yards and along the street.
- Creates additional penalties for unregistered tree service providers performing commercial tree work, such as loss of a business license or significant fines.
- Replaces trees onsite if they’re removed for development or requires a fee be paid to plant and maintain trees in under-treed areas.
- Increases street tree requirements for developments in neighborhood residential zones.
- Addresses the lack of trees in historically underserved communities through the establishment of a payment in-lieu program that will help fund tree planting and maintenance programs around the city.
- Significantly restricts tree removals on Neighborhood Residential lots:
- Near absolute restriction on the removal of Tier 1 (Heritage) Trees.
- Restricts the removal of all Tier 2 trees. Removal of a Tier 2 tree for any reason other than construction or safety is now prohibited.
- Lowers the size threshold for Tier 2 (currently Significant 12”–30”) trees from 30” to 24”.
- Lowers the number of Tier 3 (formerly Significant 6”) that can be removed from original draft-Limit of 2 trees that can be removed to two trees every three years.
In addition to the above changes, the Tree Protection Ordinance establishes clear and consistent parameters for tree protection standards, ensuring that tree removal and preservation decisions are based on objective criteria and are applied uniformly throughout the City.
This legislation is the result of a multi-step process that began with Resolution 31902, which jointly committed the City Council, the Mayor, and various departments to work together to improve tree protections. Additionally, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) has taken many steps to implement the goals of Resolution 31902, including hiring two new arborists and improving the enforcement of our City’s current tree protections.
“After half a decade of work, we have finally passed tree protections that will preserve, protect, and expand our urban tree canopy,” says Councilmember Strauss. “While some advocates in this debate have used trees as a proxy against density, other advocates sought no tree protection regulations because it adds cost to building housing. My aim was to pass a balanced bill that protects trees in our neighborhoods and during development while making space for the housing our city – the fastest growing city in the nation – desperately needs. This Tree Protection Bill protects the canopy we have today and grow the canopy my grandchildren will benefit from. “
“Trees are essential to the health, quality of life, and climate resilience of our communities,” said Mayor Bruce Harrell. “Under this strengthened Tree Ordinance, Seattle will increase protections for over one hundred thousand trees – and plant the seeds to grow thousands more in neighborhoods in need. This legislation takes a One Seattle approach to balance prioritizing tree canopy while also allowing for development of needed housing – crucial for progress on climate goals, homelessness efforts, and housing affordability. Combined with our recent Executive Order that takes action to equitably grow tree canopy on public land like parks and natural areas – which saw the greatest net losses in canopy coverage according to the 2021 Tree Canopy Assessment – the City is doing more than ever to protect, maintain, and grow our urban forests and ensure neighborhoods with the lowest canopy coverage see the most support.”
What People Are Saying
“One of the most important things we can do as a city to tackle the climate crisis is to have a healthy urban forest and provide urban housing at the same time, since both reduce carbon emissions. We’re excited to celebrate Mayor Harrell and Councilmember Strauss successfully passing these reforms to provide that policy harmony for our environment and our future.”
— Robert Cruickshank, Chair, Sierra Club Seattle
“As an affordable homeownership developer, we know that trees and housing can co-exist. We applaud the Mayor and Councilmember Strauss for working to add more trees to protected status, invest in increasing tree canopy in areas where it is lacking, and provide the certainty that affordable housing developers need.”
— Brett D’Antonio, CEO, Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King County
“The Housing Development Consortium believes the updated tree ordinance strikes a delicate and appropriate balance between expanding tree protections and ensuring these regulations do not impede desperately needed housing production. Non-profit housing developers need predictable and flexible standards to construct affordable housing at the pace called for by our ongoing housing crisis. We think the revised tree code will help grow our city’s tree canopy while allowing our members to build the homes needed to make Seattle a more affordable, equitable, and inclusive city.”
— Jesse Simpson, Policy Manager, Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County
The legislation now heads to the Mayor for his signature and will take effect 60 days after it’s approved. If it’s not signed by the Mayor within 10 days, then the new law will go into effect 60 days afterwards. The Mayor also has the option to veto the legislation.