Want to Know Why Seattle’s “Tree Canopy” Is Disappearing?

Take a look at what’s happening in North Seattle.

Near the Maple Leaf Reservoir, about 104 trees, mostly Douglas firs, are marked with splotches of spray paint indicating that they are to be cut down and sold for timber. They are massive, bushy trees, some nearly 100 feet tall, and sit just a few blocks north of Lake City Way, from which they're visible. The land they are on is home to Camp Fire USA, a nonprofit boys and girls group. For decades now, neighbors have walked their dogs through the trees, but in a few months, all but the 26 farthest from view will be removed to make way for a gated cluster of 24 town homes, 15 single-family residences, and 50 parking spaces. "The developer gets to say, 'Oh, look, but we're saving these 26 trees,'" says Michael Oxman, a local certified arborist. Oxman is the sort who, as a rule, doesn't like to see trees come down when unnecessary. But he's especially upset because, according to the Seattle Department of Planning and Development code, these Douglas firs should be saved, he says. "The rule states that 'exceptional' trees must be spared from the bulldozer during development," says Oxman. Well, Doug firs are only sometimes considered exceptional. Anyone familiar with Seattle's tree politics knows that regulations for species protection are fairly weak. So weak, in fact, that as one employee of the DPD (who did not want to be named) said: "These regulations...you could drive a truck through them." In the case of the coast Douglas fir, a type of evergreen native to the Northwest, exceptionalness is based on height, health, location, likelihood of surviving construction damage, and likelihood of remaining a safe specimen in the years to come. In short, old trees get the boot. The city can sometimes require that these trees be replaced by one or two smaller, younger trees, but that's hardly a fair exchange in Oxman's view. "It's the older trees that provide the shade and ecological benefits," he says. Replacement trees don't even have to go into the ground; sometimes, they can be contained in planters. Glancing at the city from a good vantage point—driving north on the Aurora Bridge, say—it would seem trees have been dealt a fair hand. Plenty of homes sit in the shade of shaggy firs. But over the past 30 years, the boom in human population has resulted in the city's tree canopy—that is, the percentage of the ground that has tree cover overhead—being reduced by more than half, from 40 percent to 18 percent. The mayor himself has called for "regreening" Seattle to keep it from becoming "the city formerly known as emerald." And the City Council is currently overseeing the review process for updating the DPD's tree regulations. Current DPD rules require that developers inventory the land they propose to build on and mark any tree trunks over 6 feet in diameter. The trees that still have a long life ahead of them and few defective limbs are largely spared. Mature trees—which provide much of the canopy cover—do not have such protection, however, unless the DPD finds them to be "exceptional." But they can still be removed from multifamily or commercially zoned areas (which amounts to about half of the city) and replaced by younger versions of the same species. Individual homeowners are subject to similar regulations only when removing trees from an environmentally critical area, such as a wetland or riparian buffer. Art Pederson, a land use planner for the DPD, says most developers abide by the code when it comes to "exceptional" tree protection. "The developers know the rules." Private homeowners, however, are another story. "Somebody has a tree in their yard and it's blocking a view or something, they take the chain saw and whack it down. Then their neighbors get upset because they liked the tree, so they call us and report it." DPD Deputy Director Alan Justad, sifting through recently issued fines for illegal removal of "exceptional" trees, rattles off stiff penalties ranging from $750 to $5,500 as proof that the issue is indeed policed. He concedes, however, that the DPD does not actually have an arborist on staff but instead hires one from the city's Transportation Department on a consulting basis only. Near the McDonald's Dumpster, across the street from the proposed Greenwood Town Center on North 87th Street in Greenwood, stands a grove of 35 quaking aspens. They are on a fenced-in patch of dirt that will eventually serve as additional across-the-street parking for the center, which will have apartments, restaurants and shops. During these winter months, they are without the leaves that, when the wind blows, cause them to make a distinct shuddering sound. Instead, they are long, spindly, calligraphic. The DPD lists quaking aspens as exceptional "in all cases." Even so, Justad says, they can still be removed and replaced by younger versions in a different location elsewhere on the property (though aspens are proven to not replant well). It could be months before any move is made on them at Greenwood Town Center, and they may yet be spared. Last fall, the DPD appointed a group of architects, developers, designers, and arborists, dubbed the Emerald City Task Force, to come up with recommendations for the city to revise its tree policies. If the DPD finds it is able to accommodate the task force's recommendations, those 35 aspens might be spared forever. Among its other recommendations, the task force said DPD regulations need to be clearer and stricter (meaning, if a tree is listed as "exceptional," then beef up the code to assure it's given proper consideration) and properly enforced, perhaps by hiring a full-time staff of tree-care professionals. The task force also said the DPD needs to change the attitudes of developers and homeowners so that they don't see trees, especially older ones, as nuisances. As Oxman points out, the purpose of removing mature trees is usually to remove their roots, thereby freeing up the soil so it can be compacted into a uniform walking surface (i.e., floor or sidewalk). A smooth and flat sidewalk also makes it easier to install drainage grates, which is hugely ironic since the mature trees that were removed already handled storm water runoff naturally. According to City Council member Sally Clark, who chairs the council committee with oversight of the DPD, the city is exploring whether to give developers a break on their drainage bills if they save mature trees. Another option is revamping the design of drainage grates so they can coexist with mature trees. Says the DPD's Justad: "We have to ask, are there different ways to still let people build while keeping the mature trees?" bbarr@seattleweekly.com

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