Local environmentalists call Councilmember Rob Johnson’s tree preservation ordinance a ‘tree removal’ law

Public hearing on Johnson’s tree legislation is Wednesday September 5th 9:30AM in the Council Chambers; concerns raised that notice of hearing was not posted until day before Labor Day


More of this if Rob Johnson’s new tree ‘preservation’ law is approved?

Longtime tree advocates and environmentalists headed by a group called TreePac has sent out a request to the larger community asking the public to join them at what may be the only public hearing on Councilmember Rob Johnson’s new tree ordinance.

The public hearing is set for Wednesday September 5th 9:30 AM in the Seattle City Council Chambers though advocates are asking their supporters  to show up at least as half hour early.  Concerns have been raised that Johnson did not announce the hearing until Friday, the day before the long Labor Day weekend and only after he was alerted by advocates it had not yet been posted.  Advocates say Johnson’s timing for the hearing and his failure to provide adequate notice highlights how rushed this process has been.

Councilmember Johnson’s also is holding the public hearing before completion of the environmental review process, a practice that community advocates say raises serious legal red flags.  He’s undertaking review, holding hearings, and bringing legislation to his committee even though comments are still being accepted for a Declaration of Non-Significance (DNS) so effectively it’s not yet issued for his proposal.  The State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) requires a completed assessment before the City Council can commit to a course of action.

Also, provisions of his proposal remain blank and unknown to the public in at least two places so they cannot be expected to rationally comment on what is a moving target.  This too raises the question; how can a accurate assessment of the proposals impacts be completed?.

Tree advocates say they are considering filing an appeal to the hearing examiner.  They say the public and even other councilmembers are not being given a reasonable amount of time to review and understand the complexities and inadequacies of the tree legislation.  They’re also saying the city has failed to adequately assess significant impacts associated with Johnson’s proposal.

(Special note: In the wake of outcry from tree advocates and community groups, and we suspect upon advice from the City Attorney’s office, a day before the public hearing and and after this story was posted, Johnson said he would allow more time for consideration of his tree ordinance and acknowledged it was a work in progress.  He also said his committee would not be taking action on any tree proposal until next year.  The DNS, however, has not been withdrawn and advocates still are considering an appeal to the City Hearing Examiner. )

Any appeal of “Declaration of No Significant Impact” (DNS) for Johnson’s legislation (details at bottom of this post) must be filed no later than 5:00 p.m. September 13, 2018.  Advocates believe that “in the first place” completion of a far more thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) should have been required – the only way they say these far-reaching impacts can be understood.

According to Steve Zemke, one of the leaders in TreePac, “On balance the proposed new ordinance’s emphasis is on making it easier for development to occur, not on protecting existing trees.” The new law removes existing restrictions barring removal of the larger older “heritage trees” including “tree groves” and “exceptional trees” that are “the oldest of their species in Seattle.” This prohibition is replaced with an obscure averaging formula allowing tree removal when aerial photos show added green above some set average for that area.

And Zemke says there are no provisions for improved enforcement of any of the restrictions that will remain.  Currently, he says enforcement is sorely lacking and Johnson’s proposal doesn’t address even that.  “Once a mature tree is taken down” according to Zemke and replaced by a 2 inch sapling (Johnson’s proposal allows replacement of old growth essentially with twigs), “the full benefits and functions of that tree will not be realized for the decades it takes to replace trees removed. During that time, the City would then suffer from the supercharged effects of climate change in the absence of this mature tree canopy.”

Michael Oxman, perhaps our city’s most outspoken and experienced tree advocate, has also urged the community to turn out in force to oppose Johnson’s law.  According to Oxman, “combined with two other legislative zoning proposals, the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) ordinance, and the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) ordinance,  Johnson’s tree removal law is a triple whammy against the urban forest.”

Oxman also points to provisions in Johnson’s bill that replaces any serious tree inventory and process for protecting trees with aerial photos “that only show the location of leaves”.  It means according to Oxman that the city could wind up levying fines for unauthorized tree removal “without knowing that a tree shown on the map is actually on the neighboring property. ”

Oxman also wonders why the rush to ram this through; “the draft bill is incomplete, and still has blank spots in it, marked by XXX’s, indicating: “To Be Determined later”.   Just like the HALA city-wide upzones, and backyard cottage legislation, Johnson is attempting to press Council action on the tree legislation before the budget process or at least before the end of the year.

Likely the rush is motivated by pure politics.  Johnson knows it gets trickier voting on these widely unpopular pro-developer land use changes if Council review and action is pushed into 2019, an election year.  Oxman says “this is exactly what Councilmember Mike Obrien did seven years ago when he was land use chair”.  There, zoning changes were pushed through with no consideration of tree impacts and “in hindsight, we can see the utter decimation of the tree population in Ballard.

  • John V. Fox

To learn more about tree advocates’ concerns:

Coalition for a Stronger Tree Ordinance – a Project of Friends of Seattle’s Urban Forest and TreePAC.

www.friends.urbanforests.org and TreePAC.org

They also are seeking donations to support their effort and to do so you can click here

Steve Zemke may be reached at steve@friends.urbanforests.org.  He is chair of  TreePAC and Friends of Seattle’s Urban Forest.  A large coalition that includes neighborhood groups, tree and open space advocates has been formed to fight Johnson’s bill.  They are asking for the public’s help either volunteering or making contributions to their effort.  They say the future of our city’s tree canopy is at stake and our environmental health and it’s character and livability.   Other links to groups involved in this effort and to find out more:

For those considering filing an appeal of the decision to issue a Determination of Non-Significance (DNS) can be submitted to the Office of the Hearing Examiner but no later than 5:00 p.m. September 13, 2018 and addressed to the City Hearing Examiner.   An $85.00 filing fee is also required. The Hearing Examiner’s addressed is PO Box 94729 Seattle WA 98124-4729.  You may want to call their office first and see if they’ll also accept appeals emailed to their office.  Copies of the DNS and the proposal may be obtained online at https://www.seattle.gov/council/meet-the-council/rob-johnson/trees-for-all .


About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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