Housing Versus Trees — Can We Have Both?

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I’m walking with Anthony Moran, a professional arborist, on a property in an affluent Seattle neighborhood. He’s there because the owner wants to tear down an old house and build a bigger one. For more than 20 years, Seattle has had an ordinance to protect trees — and this property has some magnificent ones. The owner has hired Moran to inventory the trees and determine which ones are protected by law.

The city’s old ordinance, which it replaced July 30, would have been a problem. On one side of this property is a towering Douglas fir, 30.5 inches in diameter (as measured 4.5 feet from the ground). In the middle of the lot is a deodar cedar, its trunk 30 inches in diameter. By the house is a mushroom-shaped Japanese maple, its trunk 12 inches in diameter.

Under the old tree code, those trees were protected. The protection didn’t mean the builder couldn’t cut them, but he would have had to prove to the planners that to build a single-family house as big as the zoning allows — 35 percent lot coverage — he had to cut them. Probably the builder’s plan would entail a long argument with the city.

The builder would also have had to contend with some of the trees left standing, because digging out the foundations of a bigger house would damage their roots. On this property, Moran says, the question of root damage would have applied not only to the Doug fir, but also to three Blue Atlas cedars and a California redwood on the neighbors’ properties, because tree roots pay no attention to property lines.

While the old ordinance guaranteed that a builder could build somewhere on a lot zoned single-family — maybe not where the owner wanted — it made no such guarantee for lots zoned for low-rise apartments and townhouses. The new code changes that. It allows the builder to cover 85 percent of the property in low-rise zones. Within that footprint, most trees are no longer protected.

“The new Seattle ordinance hands the baby to the builders,” says Moran. That rule change is the one that tree advocates are complaining about.

The arborist is of two minds about that. He loves trees. It’s why he does what he does. The trees he’s showing me — all of which date from the era when trees had no legal protection whatsoever — are grand. Excavating the site for a new house is going to hurt them. “There is no way to build on a lot like this without significantly impacting the larger trees at the site — on it, and off it,” he says. “If you base everything on the trees, this would not be a buildable lot.”

Then again, he says, the lot is zoned as a buildable lot — one of many in a neighborhood of fine homes. “Do we as a society have the right to dictate to a private person that he can’t build on it?” he says.

He grins. “I love to debate.”

I’m talking to Moran after reading a debate about Seattle trees on Nextdoor.com. If you want to know what people think, you can read it there. On the question of trees versus housing in Seattle, there are many voices, most of them favoring the trees. The dominant thought is that housing versus trees is a false choice, and that Seattle can have more housing and save the big trees.

“I see no reason why the trees can’t be saved AND the housing built,” writes one Nextdoor commenter. “This isn’t 1920,” writes another. “Those arguing against tree destruction aren’t also against housing.”

Actually, they are. Since 2000, Seattle’s population has increased from 564,000 to 770,000. And since the passage of the state Growth Management Act in 1990, public policy has been to grow by infill, on land inside the urban area.

 “Infill: That’s where the trees are,” says Moran. “The whole conception that you can build and have these trees is bullshit.”

A year ago, housing developers testified on Seattle’s old tree-protection law. One of them was Blueprint Capital, the largest developer of low-rise housing in Seattle. It buys land, designs projects, mostly four-to-six-units, and assigns the work to a builder. At the time of the hearing, Lucas Deherrera, a former Seattle city planner, had worked at Blueprint for seven years, much of it to judge whether lots offered for sale were buildable.

Deherrera recalled a townhouse project on Capitol Hill. The lot had a problem tree on it. “We spent about 100 hours working [with city planners] on the tree issue,” Deherrera said. “We went through six or seven designs.” He ended up with a design that worked, but he lost two units.

“It can be done,” Deherrera said, “but it’s so hard we decided it’s not scalable.” Blueprint mostly quit buying properties with protected trees.

Erich Armbruster owns a smaller company, Ashworth Homes, in Edmonds. Armbruster, 48, has been building small projects in Seattle for 24 years. He has also been an officer of the Master Builders and has represented builders in civic matters. He recalls the same problem Deherrera described: Because of the trees, a “low-rise” lot zoned for, say, six townhouses, might allow only four units, two, or none at all. Finding out exactly how many units the city allowed, he says, would take at least three months of negotiation with city planners and sometimes as much as 18 months.

In the low-rise zones (“neighborhood residential” in the new code) the new 85-percent rule allows a builder to cut most of the trees, except for a “heritage” tree, without a long argument. In exchange for this freedom, the builder will have to plant new trees or pay $17.87 per square inch of cross-section for each tree of a certain size removed.

 For builders, that’s a gain. “Tell me what I can do, then I can do my work,” Armbruster says. “If you just put a question mark on the site, I can’t take that gamble.”

 Clearly the 85-percent rule prioritizes housing over trees. And there’s a reason for that. Housing is expensive in Seattle, where the median house sells for $860,000 and the median apartment rents for $2,233 a month. When the city makes it harder to build new housing it is pushing these numbers up. “Housing versus trees” is really people versus trees.

What of the value of trees? Lynda Mapes stated the classic argument in a Seattle Times story nine years ago: “Trees are not a luxury, or small matter. Study after study has shown that neighborhoods with more trees usually have higher property values, better neighborhood interaction, and lower crime rates. People with trees in their environment generally experience less stress. They are happier and better able to focus and solve problems.”

A low-income person might consider these things luxuries. It depends on your point of view.

Then comes the issue of the city-wide tree canopy. The Seattle City Council has set a goal of 30 percent tree canopy. It’s a nice round number. According to the city’s 2021 Tree Canopy Assessment, between 2016 and 2021, Seattle’s tree canopy — the area under the foliage of trees —declined from 28.6 percent to 28.1 percent. Considering that the city added tens of thousands of people from 2016 to 2021, an absolute loss of one-half of 1 percent in tree canopy should be acceptable. Also, Seattle has hundreds of thousands of trees, most of them growing every year.

While reducing the burden on builders, Seattle’s new tree code imposes new rules on what any property owner can do without a permit. There is some justice in shifting the burden to non-builders. They’re the ones who clamored for tree protection. And nearly half the city’s loss in tree canopy from 2016 to 2021 was in their neighborhoods, and mostly not from construction. Much of the rest was caused by the city’s cutting old, diseased trees in parks and woodlands. Tree loss on building sites is visible and obvious, but it’s only a small part of the overall loss.

Moran, the arborist, takes the long view. His answer to the trees-versus-housing conflict is to take down old trees and plant new trees. “It is stupidly hard to keep those big iconic trees alive through the development process,” he says. “But we can plant some trees. We can plant tons of trees.”

And please don’t plant Western red cedars, like the one the protester has lately been occupying in Wedgwood, he says. Seattle’s climate is becoming too warm and dry for Thuja plicata — and for Doug fir, hemlock, and the other native species. “Plant trees native to Mediterranean climate,” Moran says. “Deodor cedars, Blue Atlas cedars. They love it. I want to plant beeches; I want to plant oak; I want to plant sequoias — trees that are going to thrive in the new climate.”

But they would be saplings, not majestic trees with 30-inch trunks. “They will be, in 80 years,” he says.

 

Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.

14 COMMENTS

  1. If I’m understanding the arborist who is quoted, we should cut down fine old trees indigenous to this area, that provide shade and habitat for native birds ….and replant with Mediterranean-origin trees because they will be huge in 80 years? And in the meantime, we can pretend that a sapling provides the same benefits as a mature, big-leaf maple.

  2. According to UW weather guru, Cliff Mass Weather Blog, The truth is that a small reduction (or addition) in tree cover in Seattle will have a very modest influence on temperature because of Puget Sound, our mountains, and the local winds during summer.

  3. There are even further layers here. Folks moving here who want to buy homes do so because they can afford it. They bid tens of thousands over asking price, setting bidding wars in motion. This will only further drive up the cost of housing. This is what happens when demand is significantly greater than supply. Nearly every residential tree in Seattle could be removed and there will continue to be a shortage, and housing costs will continue to go up. The Master Builder’s Association directly lobbied the Mayor and City Council in order to ram this through. They are fully aware of this. Cronies, developers, Master Builder’s and their associates stand to make millions. Follow the money. We are being conned.

    • You don’t want bidding wars. Bidding wars, you write, are “what happens when demand is significantly greater than supply.” And that “will only further drive up the cost of housing.” OK, fine; but then you contradict yourself: You argue not to worry about restricting the supply because “costs will continue to go up” anyway. By the same amount? Isn’t it true that the more the city restricts the supply of future housing, the more that costs will go up for existing housing? In that case, the people “making millions” are the owners of the existing housing. They make their profit (on paper) by doing nothing. At least the builders make their money by creating new housing for people to live in.

      • You are correct. Homeowners will make more money. However when these sites are purchased by private equity groups and developers with easy access to capital, the profit realized by selling multiple units allows them to weather any local price fluctuations. Each new unit will sell for almost as much as the cost of the original single family unit, and the debt can be written off if the project fails. The end result is a very slight increase in overall supply as compared to demand, coupled with even higher home prices. Perhaps a better way to visualize the supply/demand dynamic for the foreseeable future is to plot slowly increasing supply with nearly infinite demand. I don’t have an answer on how to increase density in the short term in residential areas while also preserving large trees. But removing trees and pouring concrete should not be the preferred strategy. And lawmakers should give more weight to citizens’ concerns instead of blindly accepting the advice of developers and builders.

  4. Tooo many people forget, or seem to have never known, that trees take up the carbon dioxide that people breathe out and return oxygen, an important part of the air that people breathe in.

    There must be a better way to discuss this issue than posing a dichotomy — housing versus trees. What I see in my neighborhood — Greenwood/Phinney — is smaller homes torn down so large homes can be built. Or, two homes, one a condominium, the other a category unknown to me . Trees? One, I think, a small one. I suppose one of them fits the ‘median’ price, but is that ‘affordable housing?’ I don’t know.

  5. Replacing diseased trees with young ones (and watering them until established) is a good idea. Cutting down healthy majestic trees in order to squeeze onto a lot another 13-ft wide unit full of steep stairs to a useless roof deck is not good housing or smart environmental policy.

  6. They will be majestic trees with 30-inch trunks, in 80 years – if they live that long.

    That’s one of the weaknesses of planting as a substitute for protection. In 80 years, the land under the tree will go through a series of owners and circumstances. It takes only one owner who prioritizes something else over the tree, and it’s a goner.

    By all means, plant more trees. But if we want a city with big trees, they need legal protection. The notion that you can build and have trees is not bullshit – you might get that story if you ask developers and their arborists, but what that really tells you is that putting anything in the way of development reduces profit. Who knew?

    As for native trees … I don’t see western hemlock working out real well in Seattle. But Douglas fir does fine in much hotter, drier climates than Seattle – that’s why it isn’t the principle tree in the local climax forest, and western hemlock is. Sometimes I wonder how much developer arborists even know about trees.

    • I agree. The arborist I have known for years who is not a paid shill for developers tells me regularly about the need to introduce trees that will tolerate the shifting climate as well as fit in well for the Pacific Northwest. Chief among these well-suited trees is the Sequoia.

  7. Perhaps policies/regulations to minimize the size of dwellings should be considered. Most of us really live in homes that are bigger than what we need. For most of humanity humans lived in much smaller abodes. We have become ridiculously materialistic and it is only gong to add to our future demise if we do not make some hard and fast changes!!!

  8. “In the low-rise zones (“neighborhood residential” in the new code) the new 85-percent rule allows a builder to cut most of the trees…” is an inaccurate statement. Low Rise (LR) zones are covered in new SMC 25.11.070(B), and have the mentioned 85% rule. Neighborhood Residential (NR) zones are covered in new SMC 25.11.070(A), and the standard is: “1. Tier 2 trees may be removed only if: …
    c. Tree removal is necessary for the construction of new structures, vehicle and pedestrian access, utilities, retaining wall, or other similar improvements associated with development.”

    The effect may be the same (no more trees) but LR and NR are not the same. Yet (the next Comp Plan update might fold most NR into LR as a result of HB 1110).

    Missing from the article and most comments is concern for the “affordability” of new infill housing. We could easily solve this problem if we required a percentage (1/3? 1/2?) of new units to be affordable to low income households whenever land is up zoned. This is called mandatory inclusionary housing and it’s used in many cities. Not Seattle, because our land use policies are largely dictated by developers.

    Capturing the increased value of the land upon up zoning for the social benefit of low income housing is essential if we don’t want to end up as a city entirely occupied by rich people. “If trends continue, Seattle will become increasingly exclusive to higher income households.” Seattle Market Rate Housing Needs and Supply Analysis, BERK 2021 (readily available on line). Exhibit 67 on p. 71 pretty much tells the story.

  9. Same old same old story in Seattle. Big money took Seattle over in the early 80’s. When was the last time anyone saw an indigenous native in Seattle whose family was here before non-natives moved here? Probably never. And they would probably prefer not to. They’d rather see them on a Reservation but probably not even there. I recall drinking with them in Belltown and they were the funniest and down to earth people in Seattle.

  10. I’m a retired arborist and I worked with developers as well as homeowners during my career. I provided information for saving trees during development only to have it rejected because the municipality didn’t require it or it fell within loopholes, or they didn’t enforce their regulations.

    Interestingly one project that saved trees was during the construction of low income housing. It was in the early 2000s during the Nickels administration, and at the time the City of Seattle required it.

    I question arborist Moran’s skill level if he believes a Sequoia or Beech will fit on a residential lot after development. Or does he believe trees should only be in parks? It’s going to hit 90 again today, and I’m happy to have trees near my house. Everyone should have the benefits of trees.

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