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Fighting City Hall

tree ordinances, local regulations, permitting

Tree ordinances are a necessary hassle because people often, for their own benefit, want to remove trees on public rights of way. As a landscape professional, you may be asked to help craft a local ordinance. The ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) has a downloadable document with guidelines for developing and evaluating tree ordinances

Citizen groups, for environmental or other altruistic reasons, want to plant trees anywhere and everywhere, without planning for the effect of trees as huge fixed objects under power lines, blocking signs, and in the clear zone on public rights of way. Tree advocate groups might plant without maintenance or safety considerations. Something as harmless as planting a tree can become highly polarizing. People get emotional about trees! If they are told not to plant them in certain areas, they get extremely offended. Arguments about which trees are best take over a lot of civic planting projects. A tree ordinance can calm down the anger and provide direction for group decisions.

Developers sometimes try to expose outdoor advertising or their latest retail shops by taking down trees. They use their economic strength, political pressures, and legal technicalities to go beyond necessary and reasonable tree removal. Enforcement of a tree ordinance can mean a quick career killer for low-level bureaucrats, and special waivers are common to allow free “economic development” for those with clout.

Written ordinances are essential to provide consistent and fair treatment for all parties. I don’t know which is worse, really. Reckless tree removal or thoughtless tree planting. If everyone removed only the trees necessary for construction and planted trees and planted only in locations that were planned thoughtfully with expert assistance, then there would be no need for tree ordinances. Tree ordinances are here to stay.

If you are trying to write your own community tree ordinance, your primary focus should be to create a responsible tree plan with safety as the priority. Include minimum setbacks and avoid overhead power lines and underground utilities. The remaining parts of a tree ordinance should allow for some flexibility, depending on each unique situation. Without that flexibility, you could see worthy groups denied the permission to remove bad or dying trees in order to replace them with something remarkable, and you could see innovative tree selection be prohibited. Safety is essential, but much of the rest if a tree ordinance wording relates to aesthetic concerns.

The best ordinances are paired with a paid, well-trained official to monitor, evaluate, and review tree planting and removal proposals. It helps if the tree ordinance official is a certified arborist of licensed forester or licensed landscape architect. This person should understand not only local requirements, but state and federal requirements for tree removal and installation. They should be even-tempered and able to empathize with emotional or angry citizens. And most importantly, the supervisors and upper management of the government entity who created the ordinance should support and back up the tree ordinance official’s decisions consistently. The official in charge of reviewing proposals must also enforce the ordinance requirements.

You can read more about trees and tree ordinances in The Advanced Guide to Trees .

Tree Ordinances