Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell

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Dec 22 2008

Tree Ordinance

Since 1972, the amount of tree cover in Seattle has decreased from 40 percent coverage, to about 18 percent today. This is a loss of approximately 1.7 million trees in a 36 year period is significant and I think all of our citizens should be concerned about it. Our tree cover is essential to our way of life and part of the fabric that makes Seattle great. Trees are not only aesthetically beautiful, but essential to cleaning pollutants from the air and providing root systems that help with drainage and storm water runoff. Our region’s declining tree cover is an issue that deserves our attention.

As the Council considers legislation to address this concern, I will certainly support proposals that first encourage property owners to plant trees or gives property owners and builders an incentive to build around pre-existing trees. I am always concerned if our governing body immediately jumps to solutions that could ignore the fine balance that courts of law use when examining the needs of the state against the protections of individual liberty. This “balance” is the very foundation of constitutional law and individual rights. Here, Seattle’s need to a preserved tree canopy has to be balanced against the property rights of individuals. I have repeatedly articulated my weariness of nanny politics and in developing our solutions, I would like to see the City simultaneously coordinate our efforts with the County, state and environmental communities such that we can combine resources and regional strategies toward a common interest.

The legislation before the Council would limit the removal of trees on all commercial properties and single family home lots 5,000 square feet or larger. This means that most single family home lots in our city would be subject to the restriction. Specifically, the proposal would prohibit removal of trees deemed as exceptional by the city. The criteria for an exceptional tree would be defined based on the age, size or species and deemed by the Director of Planning and Development as such. In addition, within a given year, property owners are permitted to remove three (3) trees which measure six inches or larger in diameter. Lastly, when a permit is sought for a new structure, the owner would have to prove that removal of the tree is necessary.

Again, I commend our council for addressing the issue of our declining tree canopy. I agree that action is necessary. I am hopeful that any legislation passed will provide solutions to preserving our tree cover that passes the balancing test of respecting the rights of property owners. I am currently in the process of obtaining the types of incentives for tree canopy preservation and growth that may assist our city. As always, I appreciate any input you may have. If you have suggestions, please e-mail me at:

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