King County's complex rules for clearing trees on private property vary according to the land's location and zoning. Restrictions on clearings are intended to reduce erosion, protect water quality and preserve fish and wildlife habitats. King County clearing regulations apply only to property in the county's unincorporated area. Tree clearing within one of King County's cities, such as Seattle, is governed by that municipality.
A clearing and grading permit is needed to remove trees in King County's designated critical areas, in areas with urban clearing regulations or in special districts. These areas include wetlands, steep slopes, wildlife zones, aquatic areas and areas such as the Soos Creek Basin. Permits are required to clear more than 7,000 square feet of property in rural area, or RA, zones.
A clearing permit is required to cut down 5,000 board feet or more of "merchantable timber" -- equivalent to the number of logs hauled by a standard logging truck, according to the King County Department of Development and Environmental Services, or DDES. A county-issued Class IV-General forest practices permit is also required.
Clearing permits are not needed for emergency tree removal or landscaping maintenance. A county permit is not required when trees in a forestry zone are cleared under a forest practice classification administered by the state. Other permit exceptions are listed in a detailed chart in the King County Code, Section 16.82.050, according to area type and conditions that must be met.
DDES suspended enforcement of additional clearing limits in the rural residential zone after the Washington State Court of Appeals ruled in 2008 that the provisions were inconsistent with state law. However, landowners in that area must still obtain clearing permits under the county's other clearing regulations, when applicable.
Obtaining a Permit
King County offers two clearing permits -- a short form and a standard format. The standard format requires more paperwork, plus a detailed review at the DDES office. The short form permit is issued in the field, but only for proposals that don't change a critical area or require environmental or drainage review.
Clearing and grading work is allowed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Exceptions may be granted by the director of DDES after considering noise impacts to the surrounding community and determining any mitigation.
If more than 5,000 board feet of timber is cleared without a permit, King County can impose a development moratorium on the property for up to six years. Violators can be required to restore the illegally cleared property and pay double permit fees. They also may face civil penalties.