SDCI Code Compliance enforces violations of the Tree Protection Code and the Regulations for Environmentally Critical Areas related to tree-cutting. Trees serve an important environmental function as well as adding beauty to our city. Our trees may be unnecessarily and unlawfully cut, sometimes at the instruction of a real estate agent or a tree company, because people are unaware of the rules about tree-cutting. The following factors should be considered before deciding to remove a tree:
1) Where are the trees located?
- Is the area mapped as an environmentally critical area (ECA)? If so, special rules apply. Wooded areas and hillsides are very likely to be ECAs. Almost all work in ECAs requires permits or approval in advance. Tree cutting is very limited in ECAs. See SDCI Tip 331, Environmentally Critical Areas: Tree and Vegetation Overview.
- Is the tree in the right-of-way? Seattle Department of Transportation has its own rules about street trees and other trees in the right-of-way. See SDOT Client Assistance Memo 2302, Tree Pruning Removal Permits.
- Is it a vacant lot? All tree cutting of trees larger than 6 inches in diameter is prohibited on undeveloped lots without prior approval from SDCI.
2) Are you removing the tree or only pruning?
- Tree pruning that enhances a view by removing the top part of the tree is “topping,” not pruning—and topping is never allowed, whether you are in an ECA or elsewhere.
- Maintenance pruning is usually allowed without prior authorization if it follows industry guidelines. But, if you are in an ECA, check the rules for additional restrictions.
- Pruning of more than 25 percent of the tree’s branches goes beyond maintenance. Some trees cannot recover from severe pruning.
- Removal of hazard trees has its own authorization process. See SDCI Tip 331B, Hazard Trees.
3) Is the tree an exceptional tree?
- The Tree Protection Code prohibits the removal of exceptional trees. These are trees that are large for their species and therefore have particular value. Penalties for unlawfully removing an exceptional tree can be expensive.
- Which trees are exceptional? SDCI Director’s Rule 16-2008, Designation of Exceptional Trees, explains how we evaluate a tree for exceptional status based on size.
- Any tree over 30 inches in diameter measured approximately 4.5 feet from the ground is almost certainly exceptional, but some species are exceptional at only 6, 12, 18, or 24 inches in diameter.
4) How many trees do you plan to cut?
- Developed property: The Tree Protection Code allows no more than three trees greater than 6 inches in diameter measured 4.5 feet from the ground to be cut each year on developed residential or commercial lots, and only if the trees being cut are not exceptional trees.
- Undeveloped property: No trees over 6 inches in diameter measured 4.5 feet from the ground may be cut on undeveloped (vacant) lots unless there is an issued building permit or grading permit allowing it.
Help us keep our city beautiful and green and avoid unnecessary tree removal. More information is available on our Tree and Vegetation Removal website.