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New Street Tree Ordinance in the Works


A tree-lined street in Seattle


The current ordinance governing street tree maintenance was written in 1961.  As it stands now, the ordinance leaves citizens and staff alike wondering who is officially responsible for street trees, defined as “all trees growing within the street right-of-way (including unimproved right-of-way).” The current ordinance does not define how trees may be maintained, under what circumstances they may be removed, or what happens when street trees are damaged or killed without cause.  City Arborist Nolan Rundquist has researched municipal tree regulations throughout the country and has developed the new Seattle ordinance to address local issues.  With the new ordinance, SDOT Urban Forestry aims to clear up the confusion and foster a safer and healthier urban forest.  Through a series of public meetings, the ordinance approval process, and follow-up meetings, Urban Forestry staff is attempting to better educate Seattle residents about responsibility and proper care for street trees. 

 The new ordinance codifies an existing City policy: the City is responsible for maintenance of trees it planted, while adjacent property owners are responsible for all other planting strip trees and vegetation.  The current ordinance states that abutting property owners maintain the planting strip, but doesn’t specifically mention trees.  There is a street tree map that will be publicly accessible in the next month or two that will show all City-maintained trees and the majority of private trees.  Property owners with street trees adjacent to their property need to get permits to plant, prune, or remove trees; all permits will be free of charge except when work requires major traffic diversions.   Pruning branches less than two inches in diameter will not require a permit.  This is the same policy that currently exists, but will be better defined and codified in the proposed ordinance. There is an accompanying street tree manual that provides guidance on how best to care for and maintain trees.  The manual is consistent with current arboricultural standards.  By providing this information we aim to reduce practices such as tree topping which result in unhealthy, decayed, and ultimately dangerous street trees.  People who illegally remove or damage trees will be subject to fines based on the appraised value of the tree under the new ordinance. 

 A big change in the new ordinance is a requirement that companies that work on street trees register with the city of Seattle.  The registry is free, and requires the tree service provider to have a Seattle business license, Commercial General Liability Insurance, and an ISA-certified arborist on-site when street tree maintenance is performed.  The goal of these changes is both to protect consumers and protect our trees from improper work that damages or destroys trees.  Every year we see many trees damaged by unskilled or unscrupulous landscapers and tree trimmers.  This part of the ordinance, with outreach and education for the tree and landscape industry will help preserve the urban forest.  Many of the tree companies currently operating in Seattle already fulfill these requirements, but the few who do not cause quite a bit of damage.   

 The full ordinance, street tree manual, public meeting dates and feedback page are available here: