In a Dense Landscape, Can Trees and Housing Co-Exist?

Martha Baskin interviews Rich Ellison and other local tree advocates on KBCS, 3/28/22 – listen here – transcript below – Go Martha!

NOTE – capital letters note spoken dialog, not shouting 🙂 – Ed.

Lead: In the face of rapid residential development, Seattle’s urban trees are in the crosshairs. 60% of the city’s urban canopy is on residential lots. Tree advocates say housing and trees can coexist, but have yet to convince the city’s Department of Construction and Inspection, who recently issued a new draft tree protection code. As in previous drafts, maximizing a lots development potential outweighs protecting existing trees on site. Why does it matter? Trees are the lungs of the planet. They reduce storm runoff and flooding. And during extreme weather, they’re climate warriors, cooling neighborhoods and filtering polluted air. Martha Baskin has our story.

Rich Ellison looks up at a 30 foot high Cedar tree across from a row of town homes under construction in NE Seattle. “ITS GOT A HEALTHY CANOPY AND ITS DEFINITELY GOING TO BE TREMENDOUS WILDLIFE HABITAT. ITS IN THE PLANTING STRIP SO ITS LIKELY PROTECTED FROM ANY FUTURE INCURSIONS OF DEVELOPMENT. BUT EVERYTHING IS AT RISK HERE IN THE CITY…” He trails off to make way for a construction crew truck. Before the town homes were built the lot had trees and dense vegetation, says Ellison. But all were cut down by the developer. City code allows builders to cut down any tree that interferes with maximizing a lots development potential.

A member of the advocacy group, TreePac, and a biologist, Ellison has been pushing city leaders to adopt a tree code that protects existing trees during construction for years. Over 60% of Seattle’s tree canopy is on residential lots. A new draft tree code was issued by the Department of Construction and Inspection/DCI late last month and may go before the city council this Spring. Over the years, advocates like Ellison, have had some success in stopping exceptional and signficant trees from being cleared on lots not undergoing development. Exceptional and significant trees are defined by virtue of their size, species, age and cultural or historical importance. But none are protected if a developer is unwilling to work around them. “AND RIGHT NOW WE’RE TRYING TO GET THE CITY COUNCIL AND THE NEW MAYOR WHO HAS SAID HE DOESN’T WANT TO SEE SEATTLE BECOME BARREN, BIRDLESS AND TREELESS; THAT HE WILL PUT A CHANGE ON THIS APPROACH BY DCI AND GET THEM TO LISTEN MORE TO THE URBAN FORESTRY COMMISSION.”

The city council created the Urban Forestry Commission to advise the Mayor and City Council on how best to protect and conserve trees back in 2009, when interim tree regulations were adopted. The task of drafting a new code was given to the Department of Construction and Inspection/ DCI, but to date no draft has been approved. In the intervening years, residential tree protection has faced fierce headwinds from rapid development and the need for housing and zoning changes. In 2019 the city council up zoned all single family zoning to mutli-family. Sarajane Siegfriedt with Seattle Fair Growth, says the zoning change by her estimate, reduced single zoning from 35,000 acres to 32,000 acres. “CLEARLY THEN WHAT’S PERMITTED IS GOING TO SHRINK THE TREE CANOPY THAT’S HEAVILY LOCATED IN SINGLE FAMILY AREAS” Floor area ratio of buildings was also increased, while separate legislation approved backyard cottages which Siegfriedt estimates cost upwards of $400 thousand to build. “AND THEY’RE BEING BUILT. THERE’S ONE BEING BUILT RIGHT BEHIND ME AND THEY TOOK DOWN A TREE FOR THAT, A BIG 60 YEAR OLD FIR TREE.

Tree advocates have been accused of being against density, but say density and trees can co-exist if mandated in construction codes. They’ve also been accused of being against affordable housing. But Siegfriedt points out {that low-inc ome or affordable housing requires being subsidized with federal, state or city dollars.

In another neighborhood of rapid market rate development an urban planner and member of the Urban Forestry Commission, David Moehring, talks of efforts to encourage developers to look at alternative designs in order to save existing trees. The efforts don’t always gain traction with the Department of Construction and Inspection/DCI, but if neighbors are worried that new development will impact their own tree and critical root zone, they can appeal the decision and push for a new design. At least they could before the latest draft tree code eliminated most appeals. We walk behind new town homes and see one of two trees that were protected. “SO WHAT YOU’LL SEE NOW IS THEY BUILT THE 4 ROWHOUSES ALONG THE STREET WHICH IS THE INTENT OF THE CODE ANYWAY – THEY SHOVED IT BACK SO THE EXISTING TREE IN FRONT COULD BE MAINTAINED..SAME # OF DWELLINGS BUT THE TWO TREES REMAINED.”

But such outcomes are rare. A grove of trees next to another set of town homes was demolished. Moehring asked DCI to consider alternative designs drawn up by an architect.“BASICALLY THE CITY ALLOWED THEM TO PROCEED. INSTEAD OF LOOKING AT ALTERNATIVES THEY JUST WENT THROUGH AND CLEARED OUT EVERTHING.” Moehring and others say there’s a disconnect between policies that allow developers to clear cut a site in order to maximize a lots development potential and the city’s stated goal of balancing tree protections while supporting growth and density. For its part, DCI said via email that it “considered” this goal in its draft tree code and will continue to partner with the Urban Forestry Commission. DCI also noted that trees 12” in diameter would need to be replaced. But advocates say while its important to plant new trees, protecting existing mature trees is critical. Mature trees are climate warriors and essential infrastructure, much like water, electrical grids and sewers. Trees capture carbon and filter air. Their canopies buffers against extreme heat and cool neighborhoods and their roots reduce floods – things which new trees take decades to do. And of course, they provide habitat for birds – whose songs give joy in dark times. Meanwhile the Master Builders Association filed an appeal challenging the draft tree proposal. Until the appeal is resolved the City Council can’t act on the draft.

With engineering by Daniel Guenther, this is Martha Baskin reporting. -0-