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Thinking of Cutting Down a Tree in Seattle? Think Twice!

Posted Tuesday, September 18, 2012 by Christopher L. Thayer

alt textMany Seattle residents are not aware that the city has extensive regulations in place which relate to the cutting down of trees, even those located on private property within the City limits. There are two major sections in the Seattle Municipal Code that come into play: SMC 25.11 (Tree Protection Ordinance), and SMC 25.09 (Environmentally Critical Area Code). This blog will primarily focus on a summary of the issues involved in the Seattle Tree Ordinance. Keep in mind that additional restrictions may apply, if the tree or trees in question are located in or adjacent to what might be considered an “environmentally critical area” – such as a wetland, steep slope, shorelines, etc.

Seattle’s Tree Protection Ordinance, breaks trees down into three categories: (1) trees over six inches in diameter (measured 4.5 feet above the soil); (2) exceptional trees (due to size or species and having unique historical, ecological or aesthetic value), and (3) hazardous trees (posing a high risk of bodily harm or property damage). In addition, the character of the land is important as well. For undeveloped land, the general rule is that “no trees six inches in diameter or greater” can be removed, except as part of an approved development project or for hazardous trees. For developed land, no exceptional trees may be removed and no more than three non-exceptional trees that are six inches in diameter or greater may be removed in any one year period; hazardous trees may be removed but must be designated as a hazard by a qualified professional (and approval by the Department of Planning and Development). There are additional restrictions that apply specifically to development and construction.

Violations of Seattle’s Tree Protection Ordinance can subject a person to stop work orders, remedial requirements, civil penalties and fines (which may be trebled if found to have been “willful or malicious”), and even criminal penalties.

Before cutting down any trees in your yard in Seattle, it would be wise to review the Seattle Tree Ordinance (and the Environmentally Critical Area Code if applicable) in order to avoid potential liability. A good summary of the City of Seattle’s laws affecting trees can be found here. If you are uncertain whether or not your proposed tree removal might violate Seattle regulations, consider consulting the City of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, a private certified arborist, or our office to help answer your questions. Another important consideration is verifying your property lines before cutting down any trees – as cutting down a tree on a neighbor’s property (without their permission) can subject you to further civil liability – including treble damages for the fair value of the tree removed.

For more information, please contact Christopher Thayer at (206) 805-1494.

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