Tree Ordinances: Why They’re Important, How To Write Them, And Resources For Help

By: Abigail Krause, DNR Urban Forestry Coordinator

Trees contribute to a community’s character and livability. Improved air quality, stormwater management, energy savings, and increased aesthetics are just a few of the frequently referenced benefits provided by trees. However, as with any community infrastructure, trees also need to be managed and maintained.

Ordinances are one step communities can take to shift from reactive to proactive management and avoid large, unexpected maintenance costs. 

What To Include

Tree ordinances vary in complexity and length but must do three things to be effective: (1) provide authority, (2) define responsibility, and (3) establish minimum standards for management. They are community-wide laws that identify who has the responsibility for oversight of urban and community forestry activities and that direct the use of best management practices for establishment, conservation, protection, and/or maintenance of urban community trees and forests.

Some common sections you may see in municipal ordinances include intent and purpose, definitions, authority of forester, establishment of a tree board, abatement of disease and safety nuisances, prohibited acts and protection, planting, pruning and other maintenance, permits and appeals, severability, etc.

The Arbor Day Foundation has tree ordinance examples for municipalities without a tree board and for those with one.

More in-depth ordinances or sections may address the following: landscaping for new developments, screening, parking lot design, stormwater, tree preservation, heritage or specimen trees, urban woodlots or natural areas, required licensing and insurance for companies doing business in the community, etc.

Things To Consider

  • Utilize appended documents. Ordinances should be clearly and simply written. Standards, guides, planting lists, and management plans contain many details and nuances that are important for management but lengthy to include directly in the ordinance. This also allows flexibility to revise companion documents to keep them aligned with industry best management practices without the need to update the entire ordinance.
  • Customize for your community. Effective ordinances must be tailored to meet local needs. Templates or other municipalities’ ordinances can be great starting points, but don’t just call it a day after copying and pasting. Add, edit, or delete sections and wording to ensure your community’s unique circumstances are being addressed.
  • Update ordinances to fit new needs. Ordinances are a tool for proper tree care and should evolve to fit changing community needs. Perhaps the addition of a tree preservation section is desired with an increase in developments or clarification to the nuisance abatement section is needed when combatting a new forest pest.
  • Be detailed but not inflexible. Ordinances provide a legal structure for management. They should have enough clarity and authority to promote desired behaviors and outcomes while deterring unwanted ones, but should not be so restrictive that they make day-to-day operations unfeasible. Site conditions can vary widely around the community so avoid hindering the application of best management practices with overly specific ordinance language. Again, the detail and nuance are better left for appended documents.
  • As mentioned above, ordinances need to assign authority to be effective. This is often accomplished by some combination of designating an existing employee, such as the forester or public works director, or through establishing a tree board. Without someone to enforce the provisions of an ordinance they are merely words on a page. How the designated authority can enforce the ordinance should also be defined. Can they write violation notices or notices to perform work, issue permits or fines, or enter private property in relation to pest management? The best ordinances will not conflict with your municipality’s enforcement laws but rather use them to their advantage.

Resources

  • Contact your regional DNR Urban Forestry Coordinator for help. They cannot write an ordinance for your community, but they can connect you with additional resources and examples, provide feedback, and guide you through the process.
  • DNR Urban Forestry Grants can be used for the development or revision of tree ordinances. Applicable project costs can include the hiring of an urban forestry consultant or lawyer to assist in the process or matching staff time spent on the project.
  • Tree City USA Communities can submit their ordinances at any time to treecity@arborday.org for review by Arbor Day Foundation staff.
  • There are several excellent Tree City USA Bulletins that reference ordinances and dive further into topics such as “How to Write a Municipal Tree Ordinance” and “Tree Protection Ordinances.
  • Another great resource that this article draws information from, is the book “Urban Forestry: Planning and Managing Urban Green Spaces” by Robert W. Miller, Richard J. Hauer, and Les P. Werner.

 

This article is intended to be educational and is not and should not be construed to be legal advice. You should consult your municipal attorney for all legal matters affecting your municipality, including the drafting of ordinances.

 

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