Homes in Queen Anne enjoy more tree cover than other areas of Seattle. 
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Homes in Queen Anne enjoy more tree cover than other areas of Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Seattle says no more 'willy-nilly' cutting down trees on private property

Many cities require permits to cut down trees on private property. Currently Seattle isn’t one of them.

But a new proposal would create that system, to track and put a price on tree loss.

Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson said as development booms in Seattle, homeowners and builders are cutting down trees with little city oversight.

“Folks are taking down trees willy-nilly and single-family neighborboods account for more than 60 percent of the city’s tree canopy,” he said. “So if we’re going to really keep our tree canopy we’ve got to do a better job of asking those folks to get a permit to take down trees.”

Over the coming months Johnson plans to develop a permitting system with a sliding scale based on the age and health of the tree. Cutting down an “exceptional” healthy tree could cost the property owner up to $10,000, including the actual tree removal service.

“We need to have them understand why it should cost that much and why we also think the existing trees we have are that valuable,” Johnson said.

Those trees provide benefits for the climate, stormwater runoff, habitat and public health.

Johnson said the fees will go to increase tree cover in neighborhoods that don’t have as much – like the International District, South Park and Georgetown.

“A lot of that tree canopy is concentrated in the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods of the city,” he said. “A payment to a fee-in-lieu program would allow us to redistribute that canopy to a lot of places that don’t have big old trees.”

Seattle’s Urban Forestry Commission has called on the city to do more to retain tree cover since it was formed almost a decade ago.

“This is the challenge we’re facing currently is there is a very low threshold for protecting trees,” said Commission chair Weston Brinkley, who called Johnson’s proposal “extremely valuable and long overdue.”

“We are losing trees and they are a big part of who we are as culture and what we need to be a healthy place,” Brinkley said.

But he added it will be important to see the specifics as they unfold this summer.