Seattle City Council passes new tree protection ordinance

The Council said it would protect up to 10x the number of trees as the previous ordinance.

A red cedar in Seattle, WA

Trees like this red cedar in the Central District is part of a four-tiered system under the new rules.

Photo via @lizwas

You may have heard that something big is sappening right now — the Seattle City Council just passed new tree protection legislation (very PNW of us). This ordinance institutes changes to a Seattle code that hasn’t been amended since 2009.

Why now? Well, you might remember that lawmakers floated a tree protection proposal in 2022 that generated chatter. And this April, a newly released report about Seattle’s declining tree canopy prompted Mayor Bruce Harrell to announce new actions and lay the framework for legislation.

Digging into details

Here’s what the new ordinance does, per a City Council brief:

  • Expands protections to cover up to 175,000 city trees.
  • Creates a mandate that new developments must include street trees in their plans.
  • Expands the Trees for Neighborhoods program that helps residents plant trees in their yards and community.
  • Adds penalties for unregistered tree service providers.
  • Requires developers to pay a fee that helps to plant and maintain other trees in areas that lack sufficient canopy if they remove a tree.

Tiering up

The previous city code protected ~17,700 trees. But the new ordinance looks to increase the number 10-fold by revamping the categories that protect different trees from removal.

In the new four-tiered system, the highest level of protection goes to Tier 1 — heritage trees — which can’t be removed unless they’re really hazardous. It also dictates:

  • Trees that are 24 inches or wider in diameter (Tier 2) can’t be removed unless there’s a construction exception or emergency (the threshold had been 30 inches before).
  • Trees between 12-24 inches in diameter (Tier 3) can be removed for development, but can’t be removed for any other reason in most city zones.
  • You can’t remove more than two trees between 6-12 inches (Tier 4) over a three-year period in most city zones.

This bill will now go to Mayor Harrell’s desk for signing. If he approves, it will be implemented 60 days after.