By Larry J. Sundquist
Today, over 717,000 people call Snohomish County home and for good reason. Our job centers, natural environment, recreation options and housing affordability drive continued population growth. By the year 2035 we are expected to gain 238,000 more citizens, roughly the size of two new Everetts.
Wise planning for that growth is in everyone’s best interest. Balancing the impacts of the growth we know is coming and preserving our cherished resources is a challenge that demands foresight and creativity. One of these resources that will require a thoughtful approach as we grow is trees.
In thinking about how growth relates to trees, it’s important to understand that under our state’s Growth Management Act and Snohomish County policies, 90 percent of that future growth is to be accommodated within urban growth areas. Now is the time to ask the question what do we want to look like in 2035?
Smart decisions today that best utilize scarce land supply within urban growth areas, prevent sprawl and protect our rural lands. Community leaders are now looking at solutions that will allow us to both grow gracefully and to make certain future generations enjoy the benefits of a healthy natural environment.
How we make certain we have trees and the benefits we receive from them is a decision point. We know that the tree canopy in our urban environment is shrinking. We also know that we are legally committed to accommodating nearly a quarter million new citizens in the next 20 years. These two issues do not have to be competing interests.
Adopting a long-term strategy for tree canopy is the right approach.
A proposal making its way to the Snohomish County Council for consideration is a plan that would ensure that where trees are removed to accommodate our housing needs, new trees would be replanted so that 30 percent of that site would be tree canopy. In addition, sites with no existing trees would be required to plant new trees to reach a goal of 20 percent tree canopy. This approach reverses the current trend of tree loss.
Today, rigid restrictions impede the efficient use of buildable land. Trees defined as significant are required to be replaced at up to a three-to-one ratio. While that may sound reasonable to some, the result is that it becomes physically impossible to achieve urban density and in some cases impossible to build at all on forested urban sites. Building at urban density within urban growth areas is both responsible and our legal obligation.
Incentives for retaining existing large, significant trees would be available and trees in what are defined as critical areas and associated buffers could not be removed. Incentivizing retention of some existing trees is a useful tool. Where a land developer is able to retain trees without losing crucial urban density, it just makes sense to do so.
Greater flexibility in our tree regulations also enables better community design. Too often under current regulations a builder is forced to place trees in areas where their survivability is low, wind shear dangers exist and in yards where some residents simply cut them down. A forward-thinking tree code makes it possible to have the right trees in the right places.
Snohomish County’s proposed tree canopy approach is good planning and good environmental stewardship and deserves the County Council’s support.
Larry J. Sundquist is president of Sundquist Homes in Lynnwood.