New rules for street trees: Proposal discussed in West Seattle

Story and photos by Keri DeTore
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

What can you – and can’t you – do with, and about, street trees by your home?

The answers may soon change in Seattle. City Arborist Nolan Rundquist (pictured) shared the city’s proposed Street Tree Ordinance with an audience last night at High Point Community Center.

A “Street Tree” is any tree located in a city right-of-way such as parking strips (or “planting strips”) in front of homes and businesses, or traffic circles. These trees, though on city property, are required by law to be maintained by the property owner. While there currently are laws dictating how trees should be maintained and protected, they aren’t particularly clear, or enforceable. Since then-Mayor Greg Nickels introduced his Urban Forestry Management Plan in 2007, the city has been looking at ways to better maintain, and even increase the tree count in Seattle.

The city is asking for the public’s input for the new ordinances being drafted now. If you have a home with trees on the parking strip, or on a city right-of-way, let the city know what you need to keep your trees healthy and maintained.

Rundquist discussed the confusion that often occurs regarding where responsibility lies for tree care: with the homeowner or the city. The proposed new ordinance clarifies areas of responsibility, and will go further to define what a homeowner is able to do (such as pruning of branches less than 2” in diameter, or pruning of branches greater than 2” in diameter with a permit) and it defines when a certified arborist needs to be used.

Tree protection is of utmost importance, and the ordinance will place stricter fines on the destruction of trees, either during construction, or removal without a permit.

One audience member asked about public education regarding the new regulations. Rundquist said that they are working with Seattle Public Utilities and other avenues to find community outreach opportunities.

Other questions included how to appeal the City Arborist’s decision on a tree (answer: take it to the SDOT director) and what will be done with a street-tree stump at the SW corner of California/Alaska (answer: SDOT will take a look at it).

As part of this process, the city is creating a map of tree inventory showing City property trees and private property trees. According to Rundquist, 99.9% of SDOT trees are mapped, and they are responsible for the care of these trees. 60-70% of trees on private property are mapped and it will be the property owner’s responsibility to maintain those trees. This map should be available by the first of the year

If you would like to provide input on the new ordinance, you have multiple chances; Rundquist will be holding four more public meetings around the city (listed here), and is happy to come to any community council or neighborhood meeting to discuss the new rules. To schedule him, e-mail or call 206.684-TREE (8733).

To read the ordinance and provide online input, go to this just-activated page on the city website.

Comments are being accepted through January 20th and SDOT has until January 31st to respond. The comment period may be extended, depending on the volume of public input.

Rundquist underscores the importance of this public interaction period, saying: “Trees are such a valuable resource in the city, we want to get folks doing the right thing for protection and care for trees.”

49 Replies to "New rules for street trees: Proposal discussed in West Seattle"

  • clark5080 December 13, 2011 (1:48 pm)

    I remember when the City planted all those trees on 35th now they are saying it is the property owners duty to take care of them?

  • SSF December 13, 2011 (2:13 pm)

    We have one of those trees in front out of our house and last spring everyone on the block was given a warning from the City if they had trees hanging to low over the sidewalk. There’s a tree on the corner where the owner lets it grow over the sidewalk and becomes an issue. So I bet someone complained and they warned everyone on the block. Every year we do our part and trim ours, but I can’t say the same for everyone else.

  • Alki Observer December 13, 2011 (2:21 pm)

    Who’s responsibility is it if one these city trees falls and causing damage? Does the city pick up the tab for the clean up and repairs? Anybody know what the liability exposure is for the adjacent homeowners if limbs or whole trees cause damage or injury?

  • Erin December 13, 2011 (2:31 pm)

    Anyone know if you can replace existing parking strip trees? The ones outside our place are scraggly and I would love to replace them.

  • DLR December 13, 2011 (2:34 pm)

    No. This is a well planned ordinance. It is part of ‘passing the blame’. Making private citizens responsible for the public property. It cuts injury and damage payouts by municipalities–passing the buck, so to speak on to private individuals with pockets that are not so deeply insured. I attended such a class, for municipal tree care, titled. “passing the blame”.

  • Question December 13, 2011 (2:54 pm)

    So in other words if you have a tree in a parking strip cut it down now rather than waiting for higher fines and or and arborist to “consult” with you on the best way to take it down. Wonder how much they charge an hour.

  • WSTroll December 13, 2011 (3:11 pm)

    Bah! Next thing you know they will make us mow and water our lawns!

  • DLR December 13, 2011 (3:14 pm)

    That, comment IS my fear. A rush to tree removal from poor policy. I am actually a ‘tree-hugger’. However i would remove a tree i may later, not be able to afford the costly care and liability risk.

    The city as whole, wants more trees, i want more healthy trees. but the city as a whole needs to pay for this ‘want’. Not force the expenses unevenly amongst the population. No one wants to be the random lottery loser, due to having an exceptional yet costly tree NEXT to their property.

  • karen December 13, 2011 (3:15 pm)

    When they planted the trees in the parking strips a couple of years ago, this subject came up. At the time the city said they would maintain the trees. Are the new rules for all trees or new trees planted in parking strips?

  • heather December 13, 2011 (3:17 pm)

    So it looks like many people disagree… but I really don’t think these trees need an overwhelming amount of maintenance; besides, as a property owner you are already responsible for maintenance of the sidewalk in front of your house. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. In my mind its like making sure that the street drains near your house are cleared of debris so the streets don’t flood – just civic responsibility. Maybe, a group of arborists will have annual specials for public tree maintenance and we can support a local business.

  • heather December 13, 2011 (3:25 pm)

    Erin, I believe if your want to replace your trees you have to contact the city: You might even get 6′ trees paid for by the city if your neighborhood is targeted for urban plantings.

  • DLR December 13, 2011 (3:36 pm)

    Some planting strip trees are owned by the city. Some planting strip trees are owned by the individual. The ordinance makes the individual responsible for the health, appearance, and safety or the tree either way. If you OWN the tree, you would still be required to maintain it in a pleasing fashionable and healthy way. I cringe, when i see a butchered tree! but i feel if it is on private property and does not pose a safety risk, the private property should have a right to express their own tree fashion sense. I won’t name the hardware store, or grocery that has ‘butchered’ their parking lot trees. (in my opionion and by ANSI standards) Offending me! it should be their, possibly misguided, right.

  • Neal Chism December 13, 2011 (3:37 pm)

    Tree roots in the front sidewalk strip can cause issues with the clay pipe sewer lines. Check where your line is before you plant.
    Also, I have two trees in the backyard on the power line easement (alley) and I can’t touch them. Too close to the wires. We asked to have them removed last year and have not heard anything from the city yet. They hire a certified contractor to do the removals.

  • RP December 13, 2011 (3:48 pm)

    It would be nice if the trees that the city ‘owns’ were taken care of properly. Has anyone seen the trees on East Marginal Way? There is a ‘nice’ right angle cut into them to allow for buses to pass without hitting branches…aka butchered trees. There is also an old Chestnut tree across my street with a V cut right down the middle to clear power lines…I’m waiting for a good storm to split the tree in half…If you’re gonna do it, do it right (not like the city).

  • Kjb December 13, 2011 (3:50 pm)

    The city maintained them with water for the 1st summer, but then it became the home owners responsibility

  • questionable December 13, 2011 (4:00 pm)

    As long as the city lets private landowners maintain an enormous hole at a major intersection that is both a hazard and an eyesore, they have no business telling citizens what they must do with trees on public property.

  • two four six December 13, 2011 (4:13 pm)

    I love those trees on Marginal. They were not pruned by hand but were pruned by the trucks themselves. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect trim job. That’s art!

  • Alki Observer December 13, 2011 (4:34 pm)

    Will these new rules put the adjacent homeowner on the hook for these trees that the city legally owns? How is that fair? Homeowners don’t own the land or the trees but have all the liability for them?

  • kate December 13, 2011 (4:37 pm)

    In this day and age it seems like wires and telephone poles should be a thing of the past. They’re kind of a visual bummer. I hope I live long enough to see them vanish.

    • WSB December 13, 2011 (5:01 pm)

      With you there, Kate. There are a couple West Seattle neighborhoods that undergrounded utilities long ago, obviously because of views – Charlestown Hill, the north part of Gatewood Hill – and it’s always a joy to drive through. Sometimes the tangle of overhead wires reminds me of those old photos of how wires were draped inside people’s homes when electricity first became available – that didn’t last forever, though – TR

  • DLR December 13, 2011 (4:41 pm)

    The WEST
    Marginal trees were cut by brush cutter by the city of Seattle, DOT with no regard for ANSI standards they wish to enforce on others. (not by passing vehicles). I witnessed this myself as I passed by there many times that day and others.

  • DLR December 13, 2011 (4:42 pm)

    Alki observer, has it correct, that is my point.

  • karen December 13, 2011 (5:05 pm)

    No, I found the quote – the city said they would maintain the trees.
    “These trees that we are planting are going to be SDOT Urban Forestry maintained trees. We are going to be watering them during their establishment period and pruning them when they need it. If these trees happen to do damage to the sidewalks, with their roots, sometime in the future, our crews will be taking care of the sidewalk. You will not be required to maintain these trees.”

    So, will they honor the agreement or not?

  • DLR December 13, 2011 (5:25 pm)

    A rant about the West side, West marginal trees sure felt good! but seriously they work with reduced crews and reduced budget, on a huge inventory of trees.

    Perhaps with the limited resources the city has-The city should re-evaluate priorities. Instead of reducing capacity of traffic lanes for the relatively few bicycle commuters. Along with bicycle road stickers, the money could go towards the general repair of existing infrastructure, and street tree care.

  • sophista-tiki December 13, 2011 (5:25 pm)

    So , not every property owner in the city lives in a ritzy part of town, what if you cant afford to pay to have trees maintained that dont belong to ypur property., ? then the city fines you? then you cant afford to pay the fine?? then what the city confiscates your property? just asking….

  • Question December 13, 2011 (5:35 pm)

    Easy solution, cut the tree down

  • The Velvet Bulldog December 13, 2011 (6:09 pm)

    Whoa there, sophista-tiki, don’t fall off that slippery slope! No one’s going to confiscate property because you can’t afford to take down a nuisance tree.

    When the City publishes its tree map, it will answer a lot of questions as to who is responsible for the maintenance of which trees. Also, as stated in the article, the new Ordinance will clearly define what responsibilities any owner or the City has.

    Example: I have two troublesome trees on my parking strip that I inherited with the new home–they’re growing into the power lines. I’ll be submitting a permit request to remove them myself, but the City, if they feel they have responsibility for them, may come and do the work for me. I will then have to replace the trees, but I’m cool with that–I’ll replace them with appropriate street trees.

    If this subject is of concern to you, definitely take the time to read the new Ordinance and then submit feedback. If nothing else, the feedback may help clear up the legaleze speak that I keep stumbling over!

  • Neal Chism December 13, 2011 (7:35 pm)

    I guess I was trying to make a point to not forget that trees can also cause underground liability concerns; sewers, sidewalks, water lines, etc., as well as the typical above ground issues; power lines, fencing….

  • butch December 13, 2011 (7:38 pm)

    Who is going to pay for these permits? More BS from the city. A 2″ branch requires a permit? Give me a break.

  • lookingforlogic December 13, 2011 (8:09 pm)

    How about the laws regarding sidewalk maintenance after the roots destroy the concrete. Who is liable then?

  • Vela_nut December 13, 2011 (8:52 pm)

    I was lucky. Had a delivery truck hit our tree in the parking strip… City came and took it down. No leaves and free firewood!

  • KeithN December 13, 2011 (8:58 pm)

    Anyone know if you can replace existing parking strip trees? The ones outside our place are scraggly and I would love to replace them.

    >>> Yes Erin, you can, just work with the city. They issue permits to do allow this. When I added two beautiful newport plums, the city approved them, with the location. permit was free. very straightforward.

  • george December 13, 2011 (10:38 pm)

    2″! Yes, that should bog down city hall.

  • In the Dark December 13, 2011 (11:47 pm)

    Just glad I don’t have any trees in my parking strip.

  • JoAnne December 14, 2011 (7:51 am)

    Several years ago some people came along and planted trees on our parking strip. I said I didn’t want that particular type of tree, but they said they had a permit from the city to plant them, and I had no choice.

    Now I am stuck with a two huge trees that cause excessive shade to the the trees and plants in my yard (I have 6 trees on my own property). These city trees cause moss infestations and dump an enormous amount of leaf mess.
    This is an absurd situation, and there is no limit to the types of abuse and bullying done by city politicians concerned more with their moral vanity than anything else. They are careerists, not environmentalists.

  • sophista-tiki December 14, 2011 (7:53 am)

    None of this applies to me, we dont have sidewalks or planting strips in our section of the hood. I was just posing the question of “what if” . I know alot of people are just maintaining the bills they have , , and we have also seen how a small amount of money the government thinks its owed ( local or federal) can snowball into people loosing everything they’ve worked for. so yes it IS a slippery slope.

  • Mona December 14, 2011 (9:05 am)

    I do think this is extraordinarily unfair to people with lower income – especially retirees. We have quite a few trees in our yard and we do have a friend who is a certified arborist (and even he thinks these types of ordinances are unfair) and hiring him is frankly expensive. We have neighbors that simply can’t afford to hire someone to maintain their trees and their trees are weedy, unsightly and frankly dangerous. We learned this the hard way when a 100 foot maple fell on our rental house years ago. This was an incredibly stressful emergency situation and we relied on whoever we could find available for help – we didn’t have time to get permits. Trees need to be maintained. A lot of renters/homeowners don’t maintain. Why put up roadblocks to maintenance by requiring permits? Everybody suffers and neighborhoods decline. Nuisance wildlife (raccoons, coyotes, etc.) do benefit though. You don’t need to be “certified” to prune your tree – this is a fun, healthy activity that homeowners do on their infrequent, sunny weekend afternoons. Those of us who have jobs don’t time to plan ahead to get permits AND maintain our yards. When you get a rare sunny day, that’s your window of opportunity! You need to take it when you can…not get mucked down by a permit and hiring process. We need to vote more homeowners into the city counsel with a sense of responsibility, fairness and ethics and get these other people OUT!

    • WSB December 14, 2011 (9:20 am)

      I’m pretty sure you would find that most if not all of the City Council’s members own their homes. Anyway, this hasn’t even made it to the City Council yet. It’s making the rounds for public comment, and I hope that everyone with an opinion about it has sent that to the city as well as mentioning it here. We’ll continue to report on the next steps, including any revisions to the proposal, City Council hearings, etc. – TR

  • tree lover December 14, 2011 (9:51 am)

    We had three snow gum (eucalyptus) street trees planted on our property a few years back. For a couple of years, they were beautiful. Then, no matter what we did, they began growing toward and leaning over the street. We found out the trees were known to lean when competing for light with other trees (in our case, a large oak on the adjoining lawn). The oak’s branches did not directly overhang the eucalyptus, but as all the trees grew, the eucalyptus leaned south toward the sun and away from the oak.

    We talked with people at the street tree program and consulted with the city arborist. They urged us not to straitjacket the trees to any new supports (we had removed the original supports according to city guidelines), but just give them a couple of years to straighten themselves out. All we could do was cut off the lowest branches as the trees bowed lower with each growth spurt. Last year when the trees were 20-25 feet tall (not including lateral growth), we received a notice from the city requesting voluntary action to correct a vegetation violation. If we did not comply, we would have been isssued a citation or a notice of violation (NOV). The city declined responsibility for removing the street trees they had planted from their approved list. I applied for a permit to have the trees removed (no cost). Then, if I remember correctly, it cost me about $200 to pay to have them cut down and chipped.

    I still love trees. On the first Earth Day, kids in our classroom were given Washington native trees to plant. I ended up planting mine on a previously fire-ravaged spot in the Columbia Gorge. For many years after that, my brother and I planted our Earth Day trees there around where we used to live. They now tower over the vine maple and alder, sheltering their offspring.

  • Undefeated Coug Fan December 14, 2011 (10:03 am)

    So if I took a chainsaw to the trees on our parking strip what is the worst the city can do? I hate trees in the parking strip, the sap on my car, the leaves I have to rake, please tell me why I have to keep them?

  • bleeblah December 14, 2011 (10:32 am)

    Well the trees didn’t ask to be planted there either so it isn’t their fault.

  • Husky Fan December 14, 2011 (11:36 am)

    To Coug Fan and others, street trees increase your property value and help reduce air pollution, not to mention reducing storm water run off and flooding. Trees have been found to reduce aggression, vandalism and blood pressure. The key is to plant appropriate trees for the street area. The City of Seattle has a list of trees that work well in parking strips. Permits for street trees are FREE.

  • Alki Observer December 14, 2011 (2:10 pm)

    That all sounds so nice Husky Fan, but I agree with an earlier comment this is a slippery slope of unfairly shifting the city’s responsibilities onto homeowners. What’s next? Homeowners are responsible for water and sewer mains and any other utilities that happen to traverse the parking strips adjacent to their property? Seems real cut and dry to me— the parking strip is not my legally owned property (the city holds the title and deed) and they aren’t my trees on it, so why in the world are either one of them my pecuniary responsibility and a liability to me?

  • WS Ed December 14, 2011 (4:42 pm)

    I have several trees that are coming down on my property this year. Some of them were planted in dangerous locations by previous owners. Additionally we have the scraggly junk trees in our parking strip planted by some volunteers years ago. They haven’t grown more than 5 inches since they were put in and they look horrible. Since now I know the permit is free those suckers are getting yanked ASAP as well. I have lot’s of trees on my lot so a few can afford to go, but I know someone is going to whine when I have them removed. They are destroying part of my property pure and simple. Trees cost money to maintain people, if the city has a grand plan to tree up urban areas they should have to do a cost proposal and agree to maintain those things before passing any policies/legislation especially for the invasive or just plain ugly varieties.

  • Rosanne December 14, 2011 (8:05 pm)

    We live in a townhouse & there’s 6 units and two big trees out front. Who’s responsible for maintaining them? Last year we had six cases of plums that we donated to the food bank but hundreds more fell to the sidewalk—–creating a slippery and smelly mess. The city planted two more plum trees five feet away—–it’s insane! Community Fruit Harvest won’t pick fruit trees in west Seattle either. Wish I could chop the horrible trees down & not have to deal with the hassle (ladders, pruning shears, spiders, stickers & thorns)

  • Mona December 15, 2011 (9:58 am)

    I did go to the website and read through the 21 page proposed ordinance and the 36 page standards and specs. Thank you so much for providing the link! I have to admit, I get a little frustrated thinking about this because we happen to live in a part of West Seattle with high tree density (100th AVE SW) and a lot of problems due to nuisance trees and nuisance invasive weeds. One thing that is not addressed (as far as I can see, but I did read through quickly) is the invasive weed problem that comes with lots of dense trees that are not properly maintained. We have this problem on city property in our neighborhood. We have a “closed through street” that is chockfull of blackberries, weedy trees growing in the power lines, morning glory, etc. We saw the city truck come out this year and haphazardly trim a few limbs from the huge tangle of weeds and trees growing up the poles but you really can’t see what they did and it certainly is not a long term solution. I’ll repost this on the city’s sight..Thanks again.

  • anonyme December 16, 2011 (10:36 am)

    Dense trees do not “cause” weeds. Neglect causes weeds, the trees are incidental. If anything, some trees (such as conifers) deter weeds. Anyone who has ever tried to grow plants underneath conifers can attest to this.

    Contrary to popular belief, Seattle does little to protect or maintain the essential tree canopy. Seattle tends to take trees for granted. Other cities comparable in size to Seattle have triple the number of City arborists. Asplundh, Seattle’s contracted tree maintenance company, employs numerous questionable practices in regard to both pruning and planting. We need a more comprehensive plan that does not place an unreasonable burden on homeowners, nor instigate a frenzy of unnecessary tree demolition.

  • Mona December 28, 2011 (1:55 pm)

    The cause of the weed problem is the intention of creating a “wild corridor” and planting trees along that corridor rather than designing spaces that are less labor intensive. You are correct that tree corridors need to be maintained just like any garden. You are also correct that the city doesn’t do it properly. Any comprehensive plan that contains requirements for trees and tree corridors also needs to have provisions for maintenance and weed control – and yes, let’s not place unreasonable burdens on homeowners. Was there a plan out there that was going to instigate a frenzy of unnecessary tree demolition? How would that happen?

  • Out for a walk January 5, 2012 (11:19 pm)

    It is so much madness! Maybe we will all become Liberaterians. Government run a muck. Did you read this proposed new language? Pages and pages of requirements.

Sorry, comment time is over.