SEATTLE – Towering Douglas firs and lush urban parks helped earn Seattle the nickname Emerald City, so it’s not surprising that felling a tree can prompt a heated response.
A judge was fined $500,000 for cutting down more than 120 cherry and maple trees in a city park for better views, and residents fought for years to save a mature grove of 100 Douglas firs from being cleared for development.
Tree lovers are now fighting proposed city rules that would remove current protections for large, exceptional trees, and which do not include a requirement that property owners get a permit to remove a tree.
“We’re the Emerald City because of the trees,” said Cass Turnbull, founder of PlantAmnesty, a Seattle-based nonprofit, who favors a permit system as a way to slow down tree-cutting and give people pause. “Trees grow here very easily, so we tend to take them for granted.”
The proposed tree regulations come at a time when the city is trying to expand its tree canopy to 30 percent by 2037, and a city audit last year called for improvements in the city’s stewardship of trees. Seattle’s tree coverage shrank from 40 percent in 1972 to about 23 percent in 2007.
The City Council passed interim tree rules last year and directed city planners to come up with new private-tree regulations, now out for public review. The council isn’t likely to take up the issue until next year.
Many communities, such as Kirkland, Wash., and Miami-Dade County, Fla., have a tree-removal permit system. Some, like Atlanta, require property owners to pay to replace every tree they remove that’s not hazardous and more than 6 inches in diameter.
Brennon Staley, who is managing Seattle’s regulations update, said the city weighed the pros and cons of a permit system and decided it is too difficult to enforce, is ineffective and creates a burden for property owners. The city, instead, would require developers of new or replaced homes to get a certain number of tree credits by planting or retaining trees, among other proposed rules.
The city’s newly appointed Urban Forestry Commission is also pushing for a permit system.
Josh Robinette, 32, a Seattle machinist, doesn’t agree.
“Personally, I think if it’s your private property, within limits, you should be able to do what you want,” said Robinette. “If you have a tree that you don’t want, or it’s diseased, you should be able to cut it down without a permit.”
Robinette said that last year he was fined $22,500 for cutting down a massive diseased Douglas fir in his front yard. He appealed – and won – arguing he was given wrong information from city workers.
Garrett Huffman, Seattle manager for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, said the existing protection for exceptional trees has hampered development, and he is glad it’s not included in the proposed rules.
The city has decided it wants urban growth, but “the battle right now is every single tree, and it’s inefficient,” he said. “The city needs to decide whether it’s a city of density with trees, or it’s an urban forest that happens to have some people living in it.”
Turnbull and others believe if people knew the monetary value of their trees, or got incentives like a utility credit for planting them, they’d do more to preserve them.
Researchers are currently trying to calculate what Seattle’s trees are worth, in terms of water saved, pollution reduced, stormwater and drainage costs saved. The project involves the nonprofit Cascade Land Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Washington, Seattle and King County.
“Most people don’t think about it,” said Kathleen Wolf, a UW social scientist working on the project. “This helps in a very public way – what are the values of those trees?”
“Planting and preserving trees is the cheapest and easiest way to assist in managing stormwater,” said Charles Ray, urban forester for Vancouver, Wash., which requires developers of new homes to retain a certain tree density on site.
A tree’s branches and leaves slow rainwater runoff, improve drainage and filter the grease, heavy metals and other pollutants that wash into waterways. Trees also reduce energy use by providing shade.
Kimberly Christensen, 38, said the presence of a magnificent mimosa tree in front of her Seattle home has shifted her thinking about trees and their value.
“I used to think, ‘We own the house, we can landscape it how we want to,’ ” said Christensen, who recently celebrated the mimosa’s inclusion in the city’s Heritage Tree program. “We’ve only recently started to think about the urban forests, and the good things that the trees can provide for our community.”