By Mellow Detray

In October, Burien’s City Council adopted new regulations that aim to preserve mature, healthy trees, and replace any removed trees.

Trees improve air quality, mitigate the impacts of climate change, increase property value, make the community more appealing, and even reduce stress.

These regulations also align with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, Climate Action Plan, and the Green Burien Urban Forest Stewardship Plan.

So what exactly are the regulations, and how will they impact you? Read on.

When You Don’t Need a Permit
Normal & routine maintenance is allowed without a permit. This includes annual pruning of your fruit trees and shrubbery, as long as you’re not topping any trees or taking more than 25% of a tree’s canopy. 

If your lot isn’t on a shoreline, wetland, stream, or landslide hazard zone, you can also remove small, “insignificant” trees, which means that they don’t have a diameter larger than 6”. See below for tips on measuring the diameter of a tree.

You also don’t need a permit before removing a tree that is a safety risk to targets in the surrounding area. Retroactive permits are required for emergency tree removal once the area is safe, however.

When You Do Need a Permit
All trees in shorelines, in critical areas (landslide hazard zones, frequently flooded areas, wetlands, and streams) and trees on public property require a permit for removal no matter their size. Critical areas and shorelines require a Vegetation Management Plan before any vegetation is disturbed. 

A Minor Tree Removal Permit is required before cutting “exceptional trees” which are defined as being large for the species, or for removing more than one tree per year for lots up to 5,000 square feet, or two trees per year for lots up to 10,000 square feet. This permit is also necessary for trees larger than 6” in diameter if cutting back more than 25% of the living tree, or before topping the tree.

A Major Tree Removal Permit is required in conjunction with a Land Use Permit, or Construction Permit. This would affect new developments.

Fines For Illegal Tree Removal
Fines range from $700 to $15,000, depending on the extent of the loss of tree canopy. While fines will not go into effect until March 1, permits are required already, and records of tree removal violations will be kept by the city. 

How to Find the Diameter of a Tree
Using a measuring tape, find the circumference of the trunk at around 4½ feet from the ground. Divide that number by 3.14.So, a tree measuring 20” around at about chest height would have a diameter of about 6.4” and would require a permit for cutting. Some trees are more complicated to assess the size, for instance if the trunk starts to branch out below 4½ feet from the ground. In this case, measure around the trunk below the branching. Some trees have multiple trunks, presenting an even more complicated measurement. If your tree is an odd shape, you can contact to see if you need a permit in your specific situation.

If you aren’t sure if your lot is in a critical zone, or too close to the waterfront, you can also use the email above to check with the City’s Urban Forest Planner and see if a permit is required.

If you appreciate our independent local journalism, please…

Historic Trees in Burien 
In 2014, a century-old Sequoia tree was cut down to build the new CVS Pharmacy. Find its photo and story here.

Another historic tree that was saved and grows on the corner of Ambaum Blvd. SW & SW 144th Street is a lovely Cherry. Its once-contaminated lot was cleaned up, and the tree still flowers each spring. Read the original story here.

Finally, here is our coverage of a lot that was clearcut in 2020, destroying many 100 year old trees to construct a single family home.

Neighborhood Matching Grants
In 2022, the City of Burien provided neighborhood grants of up to $5,000 per project, to support groups who want to plant and maintain trees in Burien. Neighborhood groups can “match” the city’s funds with volunteer hours, donated materials and professional services, or cash. Funds are available to continue this program at some point in 2023.

Mellow DeTray is a Seattle native who has spent the last 16 years raising her family in Burien. She has volunteered at many local establishments over the years, including the Burien Library, Burien Actors...