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.