A bill approved by the Washington legislature this week would prioritize trees when retention policies come into conflict with local parking mandates. (Ryan Packer)

With minimum parking requirements, cities guarantee homes for cars in new development even before people — and they spare nothing in the quest for off-street parking stalls. A potential yard or garden can become a victim to the asphalt mandate. Actual living space may need to shrink to make room for car storage. And existing trees, in most cases, don’t receive preferential treatment over mandated car parking, despite the benefits of tree retention that almost everyone agrees on. Or at least they haven’t been given preferential treatment until now.

Senate Bill 6015, which passed the Washington State Senate Monday in its final vote before heading to Governor Inslee’s desk, includes a provision mandating that cities over 6,000 people, and all counties, in Washington “may not require off-street parking as a condition of permitting a residential project if compliance with tree retention would otherwise make a proposed residential development or redevelopment infeasible.”

“It’s basically saying, if the tree retention requirements make it such that you can’t develop a project because of parking minimums, then the parking minimums go away,” Representative Davina Duerr (D-1, Bothell) told The Urbanist last month.

Duerr had originally included this small but potentially very impactful provision in a different bill she had introduced, House Bill 2071. But after passing the House, HB 2071 was amended by the Senate’s local government, land use, and tribal affairs committee, removing the provision. And so Duerr was able to amend the provision back into SB 6015, a bill sponsored by Senator Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham) that also deals with reducing the costs added to new housing that come from added parking requirements, when it came through the House’s local government committee, which she chairs.

Duerr explained that the provision came about after the failure of another bill she had introduced last year, House Bill 1078. It would have created “tree banks” in neighborhoods that lack enough street trees, where trees would be planted to compensate for lost trees created by redevelopment elsewhere in the city.

“And it was just ironic,” Duerr said. “Everyone hated it: developers hated it, tree people hated it.” But the idea spurred a discussion of the trade-offs present when having to build housing, retain trees, and require off-street parking all on the same lot.

Residential projects that would otherwise have to tear down trees in order to fit in curb curbs and surface space for parking will instead be able to retain trees under SB 6015. (CAST Architecture)

“What if you made people choose: trees or parking,” Duerr said. “Because the same people who love trees also love parking, and maybe we have to make them choose what’s more important. And I thought that was a really elegant solution to a problem that development faces because, unfortunately, we have to make difficult choices. And I think to put it that starkly is kind of a way of saying, hey, nothing is simple. Something always has to give.”

While a lot depends on how local cities and counties interpret the change, this aspect of SB 6015 has the potential to make more projects on small lots pencil, if creating a curb cut would otherwise mean removing a mature tree that stands in the way of including off-street parking. Local parking requirements still stay in place, but they can have an important exception.

We don’t know which senator pushed for the tree retention policy to be removed from HB 2071, but we have a strong clue. Senator Claudia Kauffman (D-47, Kent), who serves as one of three Democrats on the Senate’s local government committee, voted for SB 6015 when it was originally approved by the Senate, but not when it came back amended with that provision.

Last year, Kauffman raised concerns about removing local minimum parking requirements in the context of a different bill, stating that she thought the removal of parking minimums in Kent would lead to residents not being able to retain their vehicles at all. “If you start reducing [required parking] because of the transit center, it’s going to reduce people’s ability to have their car. […] For me, this doesn’t work within the transit system that we have,” Kauffman said.

SB 6015’s other provisions are also set to reduce the costs associated with higher parking, by banning cities from requiring garages or carports to meet their minimum required parking, and allowing the use of “tandem” parking where space for one car is immediately in front of space for another. It also requires cities to allow use of grass block pavers to meet minimum parking requirements, allows current parking stalls that aren’t in compliance with local size requirements to still count, and bans required parking stalls from being larger than 8 feet wide, except in the case of ADA stalls.

“This bill is all about, if a parking space looks like a parking space, it probably is a parking space so we should count it as a parking space,” Senator Shewmake said ahead of the bill’s final vote before heading to Governor Inslee for signature this week. She also made a reference to Duerr’s provision. “The House added some other things that look like parking spaces and should count as parking spaces, as well as maybe make a few more of our lots buildable so we can get some more of that sweet, sweet infill.”

Parking is one of the most contentious issues at the Washington legislature, fueled significantly by adamant pushback on any legislation repealing or reducing parking minimums from the Association of Washington Cities, the organized lobbying group for local governments across the state.

A bill introduced last year by Seattle Representative Julia Reed (D-36, Seattle) would have banned cities and counties from imposing parking requirements in locations close to frequent transit and required them to individually analyze developments proposed away from public transit if they wanted to impose parking requirements. It was strongly opposed by AWC, and never made it to the House floor.

House Bill 1110, the high profile Missing Middle bill approved last year, included a lower profile provision that allows cities to remove their parking requirements without undergoing a costly and burdensome environmental review, but few — if any — cities in Washington have taken the legislature up on this offer, with Washington still completely absent from the Parking Reform Network’s map of cities that have completely ditched minimum parking requirements.

Duerr clearly wants to retain trees, something SB 6015 is set to do, but is forthright about the impact that tree retention policies can have on the ability to add urban infill housing. “I often tell people that those five trees on an infill lot could mean five acres in North Bend — density is the most environmental thing to do,” Duerr said.

Fine-tuning those tree retention policies might be something left to another session, but in the meantime trees are set to win out over parking.

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Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the The Urbanist since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. Ryan's writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portland, and Seattle Bike Blog, where they also did a four-month stint as temporary editor.