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Tree Ordinances

Does Your Community Need a Tree Ordinance?

topped tree with sprouts
Topping is detrimental to a tree's health
and can create dangerous situations

A tree ordinance provides the framework for managing the community forest. It provides legal authority for:

  • conducting forestry programs;
  • defining municipal responsibility for public and private trees;
  • and passing regulations and setting minimum standards for management.

A tree ordinance is not an end unto itself; it is a tool in the successful management of a healthy community forest.


fallen tree on house
Adoption of a tree ordinance can help
identify trees at risk of falling and causing
personal injury or property damage

There is no single ordinance that works for every community. Each community should determine its unique needs and how its tree ordinance will fulfill those needs. It is often useful to look at tree ordinances of neighboring municipalities and talk to people from those municipalities to find out what in their ordinance has worked well and what needs improvement. A provision for a tree board may be a stand-alone ordinance or it may be incorporated in the tree ordinance.

This document outlines some of the key elements of a tree ordinance and follows with links to other helpful websites. Remember this is only a guide. Sections may need to be added or organized differently to suit the needs of your community. If the tree ordinance is part of a larger management plan, keep in mind the goals of the larger plan when developing the ordinance.

In which neighborhood would you rather live?

development with no trees
development with trees

Trees provide shade, reduce air pollution, improve aesthetics, encourage outdoor activities, and help reduce energy costs

Tree Ordinance Components

I. Purpose

A clear statement of purpose or intent of this ordinance will help avoid ambiguity in interpretation. For example, "It is the purpose of this ordinance to promote and protect the public safety, and general welfare by providing for the regulation of the planting, maintenance, and removal of trees, shrubs, and other plants within the city of Pleasantville."

II. Definitions

Definitions of terms used in the ordinance such as street tree, adjacent property owner, dripline, nuisance, etc., will prevent confusion in interpretation and enforcement of the ordinance.

III. Establishment of a Tree Board

(This may be in a separate ordinance.) Establishment includes defining membership, terms, duties, and meetings.

IV. Municipal Authority and Responsibility

Who within the municipal government is responsible for administration of the ordinance? Is there a municipal forester? Does this person have authority for enforcement action? This section also defines and designates who is responsible for planting, care and protection of the urban trees.

V. Clarification of Title to and Responsibility for Trees

This section clarifies which trees are publicly owned and which are privately owned. This section may also describe a process by which adjacent landowners may work on a street tree abutting their property within the standards set by the municipality.

VI. Planting, Maintenance and Removal

This section clarifies responsibility of adjacent property owners in cases of street-sides or other easements, and minimum specifications. It covers planting and maintenance requirements and may include permits, an official species list, spacing and location, or it may reference planting standards and specifications in a separate document. Trees that pose a threat to the health and safety of people or property may need to be removed. This section describes the process by which trees are identified as hazardous and who is responsible for the work. In addition to new development, renovations to existing developed areas should be covered.

VII. Trees on Private Property

Trees on private property may pose threats to public safety or other private property. This section provides the authority to inspect private trees and require action by the owner to eliminate any problems, if necessary.

VIII. Requirements of Professionals

This section protects homeowners and the community forest from inadequately trained and unscrupulous people who claim to be professionals.

IX. Prohibited Activities

This section protects trees in the public right of way from negligent or intentional damage.

X. Tree Protection

Protecting trees is always a challenge. This section is used to protect against insect or disease epidemics, during construction, and those of historic or sentimental value. Sometimes this section may create conflicts if any of the trees covered in this section pose a safety hazard. It helps to plan for this possibility.

XI. Permits

Adjacent landowners may want to plant trees and work on trees on the public right-of-way abutting their property. This section describes how a landowner may do this in accordance with the forest management practices recommended in your ordinance. Be aware that if the process or cost of obtaining a permit is considered excessive, citizens will be less likely to comply with the ordinance.

XII. Enforcement, Penalties and Appeal

This section designates who is responsible for enforcement. Without penalties, enforcement of any ordinance is difficult. In addition, penalties need to be sufficient to deter violations. Depending on the length and complexity of the ordinance, penalties for violations may be listed in a single provision or in several different parts of the ordinance, and the penalties may be simple or complex. Appeals provide checks against the authority of the tree program manager.

XIII. Severability

A statement protecting the validity of the rest of the ordinance if any part of it is found to be invalid by a court. For instance, "Should any part or provision of this ordinance be declared by a court of competent jurisdiction to be invalid, the same shall not affect the validity of the ordinance as a whole or any part thereof other than the part held to be invalid."

XIV. Other

Because circumstances can vary greatly between municipalities, other sections may need to be added. The ordinance should fit your individual community.

It is recommended that an appended "standards and specifications" document be created. This document lists up-to-date detailed tree planting and maintenance standards and specifications. Standards change as more knowledge is gained in the field. It is better to reference this document in the ordinance so the ordinance does not need to be amended as standards change. The International Society of Arboriculture is a professional organization that sets standards and specifications for planting and care. The American Association of Nurserymen's American Standard for Nursery Stock is also a good reference.

Public input in developing the ordinance is essential to its successful passage and implementation. They should be involved in the determination of needs, drafting, and public review and hearings.

DEC urban foresters can provide assistance as you develop an ordinance for your community. For more information contact your local DEC Lands and Forests office.