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Tacoma Tree Code Revisions: Progress Report July 2023

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Garry Oak branches seen against a blue sky.

Photo and Article By Eric Siebel

We were finally able to gain an understanding of the current status of the re-writing of the Tacoma Municipal Tree Codes at the June 14th meeting of the Sustainable Tacoma Commission.

Mike Carey, Urban Forest Program Manager of the Tacoma Urban Forestry Dept shared the details of his ongoing (nearly 2 years!) effort to amend the city’s antiquated Right of Way (ROW) tree policies. His effort required a long time to coordinate a careful (and often political) consideration of the various needs of

the many city agencies that will be impacted by such an extensive overhaul. From what we saw, he’s done an excellent job.

The codes have been consolidated. All the current sections (TMC 9.18 - 9.20 – “Pruning & Removals,” “Planting,” “View Blockage)” will be combined into one new, and

comprehensive code section, entitled TMC 9.18 – “Urban Forestry.” The emphasis of the code re-write is on fixing outdated and unclear requirements – some of the codes date back to 1927! There are a lot of currently adopted city policies that are in conflict with, or are incompatible with, the actual city codes. This phase of the code re-writing process focused on clarifying tree protections in the public ROW - revising inconsistent language

and updating the antiquated penalty structure.

The biggest change to the tree codes is that fruit and nut trees are to be removed from the Prohibited Trees list. However, the impacts of this change will need to be closely monitored – because of issues inherent with food-bearing trees such as slip and fall hazards or fruit that remains ungleaned (a public health issue if the rotting fruit attracts rodents). The planting of fruit and nut trees in the ROW will be regulated through the same process used for street trees.

The 1927 code language mostly focused on beauty and aesthetics, and there wasn’t much emphasis on protecting trees. The pruning/removal permitting process has been revised with the intent to protect public health and safety – instead of focusing on beauty standards. The new code will specifically address the practice of tree “topping,” which essentially kills the tree, and proposes hefty fines for any violations.

The new codes will create a “Heritage Tree Program” which is a public recognition program –completely voluntary – that will allow citizens to nominate notable, distinctive or beautiful trees for formal recognition. This is not a preservation program however, and does not guarantee the protection of any Heritage tree…

The new codes propose that all ROW trees are protected unless they are a direct threat to public safety (i.e., Hazard, or conflict trees). “Hazard Trees,” are to be professionally assessed for the risk to the public before removal or mitigation. The concept of “Conflict Trees,” generated the most discussion during the code writing process – this is the crux of the issue for us as environmentalists and conservationists.

Basically, if a tree is in “conflict” with utility or ROW construction or maintenance, is damaging existing infrastructure, or impedes development of real property – that tree is eligible to be removed(!). However, to remove the tree, it must be demonstrated that there is no feasible alternative to removing that tree. (There is criteria for determining that it can’t be saved, or that you can’t work around it). The city is planning on adopting a “Trees and Construction Operations Plan,” which is an official, standardized process to follow, in order to demonstrate that a tree cannot be saved.

The code section pertaining to ROW tree violations had to be extensively revamped – the current guidelines have different types of enforcement options, different types of violation penalties, etc. This section of the code was re-written with intent to standardize all these conflicting guidelines for clarity and equity. The penalty structure has (now) been standardized, by adopting an industry standard “plant appraisal method” created by the ISA. This method looks at criteria such as the value of species, size of

the tree and size of community as a means of valuation for the penalties. But the intention behind any judgement is to be flexible – for example, if a citizen didn’t know that a tree was protected, they would be assessed differently than would be a deliberate act of destruction.

Penalties for violations have been standardized. The maximum fine for illegally removing a tree is $10,000. The minimum monetary penalty is determined as the greater of either the ISA Guide for Tree Appraisal or $500. The fee for “damaging” a tree (for example, by “topping”) is $600 per inch of diameter of the affected tree. There are fees for “timber trespass” (when you remove or damage a tree that is not on your property), and this requires strict definition of “ownership” of trees in the ROW. (The

adjacent property owner is actually the fee-owner of that po

rtion of the land and is thus the “owner” of a tree in the ROW). If there is an infraction, it will be assumed that the landowner was the one who committed that infraction. So, if a tree care company damaged a tree the owner would be the one held responsible unless the owner can demonstrate timber trespass. (This is one reason that flexibility was built into the penalty protocols).

The section of the re-written code “Pruning Trees for Views“ generated a lot of discussion, and Mike’s team repeatedly consulted with the IPS and the city council for guidance. Members of the public can request that trees be pruned (not removed) on public property for the purpose of scenic view enhancement. The UFD currently receives a LOT of requests for this type of permit. The balance that they are attempting to maintain is - trying to make opportunities for homeowners to be able to enhance

their views within reason, while not actually damaging those assets (trees) or wholesale removing the value of those trees from the community.

The new codes are going to remove the ability of people to apply for permits that would remove trees entirely. (Most of these requested locations are steep slopes, and the trees on these slopes perform valuable infrastructure benefits, like preventing soil erosion, slope stabilization, storm water benefits…so many benefits that, tree removal should not be available as an option). Also – to clarify: this section of the code does not supersede other requirements, such as the Critical Areas Ordinance. The CAO will

prevail every time.

The new pruning code essentially stipulates a “request process” to engage with the city - to see if it is possible to prune a tree for private scenic views without damaging or degrading a community asset (the tree). If the request is approved, the private citizen would then have to pay for it – to compensate the city for staff time, for the permit to be obtained, and for the actual tree pruning work to be performed.

The code process is now on schedule to be presented to the IPS in September and, if approved, will be referred to the City Council for adoption. At this point, members of the community will be allowed to participate – Tahoma Audubon and its allies are currently planning a major effort for this phase of the process, and we will be advocating for maximum protections for our existing tree canopy.

Considering the care and thoroughness with which these codes have been re-written, we expect that the IPS and the Council will adopt them. We are generally in favor of the re-write, and look forward to partnering with the UFD to ensure that Tacoma will have a vibrant and healthy tree canopy for years to come.

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