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Posted on: 8/6/2012

Developing Successful Tree Ordinances

Communities use tree ordinances as tools to protect trees, preserve green space, and promote healthy, managed urban forests. To protect trees and prevent their loss in the urban environment, communities need to understand tree ordinances, their limitations, and their proper implementation.


Tree ordinances establish official policies for how a community wants to maintain and protect its trees. They set standards for selection, planting, maintaining, and con­serving community trees. Ordinances seek to establish a legal means of protecting the public interest.


Where Tree Ordinances Work Best

Properly applied ordinances prescribe com­munity tree management to maximize the benefits provided by trees. Different kinds of ordinances can be used to conserve urban forests near streets, in parks, around public and commercial buildings, and in neighborhoods.


Examples of Tree Protection Regulations

Street Tree Ordinance: Contains provi­sions regarding planting, maintenance, and removal of trees within the rights-of-way. A street tree ordinance may contain provi­sions for dealing with private trees when they impact public interest or pose a public hazard.

Tree Protection Ordinance: Protects or conserves desirable trees, tree canopy, or trees with historic significance on public and private property. Some tree protection ordinances require a permit before pro­tected trees can be removed, encroached upon, or pruned.

Landscape Ordinance: Establishes required landscaping provisions, such as number, placement, and types of suitable plants or trees. May require trees or land­scaping in parking lots or buffer yards.

Buffer Ordinance: Protects amenities (views) of adjacent property owners in commercial and residential develop­ments, and protects water quality in streams and other water bodies. Estab­lishes specifications for acceptable noise buffers, visual buffers, and riparian buf­fers.


Tree protection regulations typically do not stand alone, with the exception of street tree ordinances, but are often incorporated within other ordinances. Regulations are often created by amend­ing existing zoning ordinances or unified development ordinances (UDO) and may be found in the landscaping and vegeta­tive buffer sections of these ordinances.


If a tree ordinance does not exist in your community:

Determine community interest and senti­• ment regarding a new ordinance.

Survey your community and assess the • quality of natural resource conservation.

Develop a management strategy for natu­• ral resource conservation.

Identify characteristics or issues specific • to your community (unique species or areas of special interest) related to natural resource conservation.

Determine if your community needs • special authorization from the state government to create a tree protection ordinance.


A Successful Framework

The framework of a successful tree ordinance incorporates several key components.

Goals and Purpose

A tree protection ordinance should begin with a clearly stated goal and purpose, because these elements provide the basis for interpreting the ordinance and evaluating its effectiveness. To achieve tree protection, establish well-defined objectives and decide on enforcement mecha­nisms for your ordinance. Your goals might include:

Establishing and maintaining maximum • tree cover,

Maintaining trees in a healthy condition • through good cultural practices, and

Selecting, situating, and maintaining • street trees appropriately to maximize public benefits and minimize hazard, nuisance, landscape damage, and mainte­nance costs.

Location and Scope

The ordinance should specify the geographic loca­tions and types of development that will be covered under its provisions. Some ordinances are limited to placement and protection of trees in street rights-of-way and parking lots. Other ordinances may seek to preserve trees in new residential developments. Some municipal ordinances may affect properties only within the municipal boundaries, while others may pertain to development within the extraterritorial planning jurisdiction (ETJ).

Management Strategy

Your community’s unique environmental and eco­nomic assets will require a tree management strategy suited to your circumstances. Because a tree ordi­nance facilitates resource management, it must be part of a community’s larger, comprehensive, natural resource management strategy. You must survey your current situation. Remember that one size does not fit all—one ordinance will not satisfy every community. Review ordinances from other communities when planning your own. A review of ordinances from comparable communities can help establish prece­dence for specific items. However, it is important to have a management strategy that is suited to your community.

Basic Performance Standards

Most ordinances are based on a set of tree protection standards that developers, landown­ers, business owners, and others must meet. Standards can include requirements for locating, planting, and maintaining street trees; methods for protecting trees during construction; and minimum tree coverage that must be maintained in a new development. A tree ordinance should identify acceptable conditions and practices. A successful tree ordinance sets achievable performance standards. Effective performance standards protect the whole urban forest as op­posed to individual trees. Well-crafted ordinance standards are easily understandable and flexible.

Administrative Responsibilities

Determine and establish administrative responsibility before you begin writing the ordinance. Your com­munity may allocate responsibilities to one individual (perhaps a tree program manager) or among multiple individuals and departments. Designate administra­tive responsibilities:

Identify position(s) responsible for imple­menting provisions of the ordinance.

Assign responsibilities to specific positions and people (urban forester or city arborist).

Confirm the authority necessary to carry out specified duties.

Centralized tree management under a tree manager, other municipal departments, or a citizen tree advi­sory board may share complementary responsibili­ties. Communication is essential to avoid overlapping responsibilities, which will depend upon the require­ments of your community’s tree ordinance. The man­agement of the community’s urban forest will suffer if duties are poorly defined or conflict with existing responsibilities.

Enforcement and Penalties

Communities ensure compliance with their tree or­dinance through enforcement and penalties. Consis­tent enforcement is the most successful method of ensuring compliance. Key elements of enforcement include:

review of site development plans,

review of tree protection plans, and

on-site inspections.

Plans submitted by developers must be verified in the field to assure compliance with the tree ordinance. The ordinance should identify:

the position responsible for enforcement (often an urban forester, a city arborist, or an inspector in the inspections department);

any items that constitute a violation and the penalties associated with the violations; and

mechanisms for handling the offense, includ­ing appeals.


Components of a Tree Ordinance

There are many types of ordinance formats to choose from, depending on your community’s needs. Select a format that accomplishes your vision as simply as possible. Your ordinance may contain the following sections:

Titlebriefly describes the ordinance.

Authorityestablishes the community’s author­ity to adopt the ordinance. To create tree protec­tion regulations, local governments may require legal authorization from the state government through enabling legislation. Legislation is un­necessary if the ordinance is developed and en­forced pursuant to existing planning and zoning authority, or if the town or city authorized the or­dinance within its charter. Street tree ordinances are usually enacted without enabling legislation.

Justification and Visionexplains the commu­nity’s reasoning behind adopting the ordinance. This section includes a community’s vision, its tree and natural resource aspirations, and a state­ment of the community’s willingness to develop a structure to preserve, conserve, and move toward that vision.

Purpose and intentdefines reasons the ordi­nance exists. A strong purpose-and-intent section determines future enforceability. This section sets forth the goals to be achieved through the ordinance.

Definitionslists and describes key terms used in the ordinance. Many communities find it is necessary to define such terms as “tree,” “drip line,” “critical root zone,” “specimen tree,” and many others. For complex terms and concepts, illustrations are often helpful.

Administrative responsibilitiesdefines respon­sibility for enforcement, review of tree protec­tion plans, and interpretation of definitions. This section details the qualifications of the city or community arborist and assigns the duty of developing arboricultural standards relative to tree care, protection, construction impacts, and administrative guidelines for ordinance compli­ance.

Tree board establishmentgives private citizens the authority to review and propose revisions to the tree ordinance; provides community educa­tion related to tree conservation; plans Arbor Day activities; and provides public forums for citizens concerned about community trees.

Applicabilitysets forth the authority of the lo­cal government over certain classes of trees and vegetation as defined in the ordinance. Commu­nities may claim jurisdiction over trees on public and/or private property, requiring local govern­ment agencies and private citizens to follow the ordinance.

Provisions for trees and vegetation on public and/or private landestablishes performance standards for tree planting and maintenance, and for activities that impact trees on public and/or private land. Permitting procedures, restric­tions on development activities, standards on tree protection during construction, and tree removal, replanting, and mitigation would be included in this section. Requirements to file tree plans for assessment, protection, landscape, replanting, or other plans are also contained here.

Penalties and Appealsestablishes penalties for violations, variance procedures, administrative and economic penalties, and mechanisms for administrative appeals.

Repeal conflicting provisionssometimes called “conflicts and severability,” this section repeals conflicts with previous tree ordinances or other regulations such as zoning ordinances. It keeps the ordinance intact if any section of the ordi­nance is “severed” because of a constitutional or court ruling.

Performance evaluationprovides for peri­odic performance evaluation of the ordinance. The provision should include a mechanism for revision of the ordinance if the goals are not achieved.

Effective datestates when the tree ordinance becomes effective.

Writing a Tree Ordinance

Before writing a draft ordinance, establish a working group of stakeholders who represent the diversity of the community and who will work together to draft the ordinance. The stakeholders should begin the pro­cess by defining their interest in and goals for shap­ing the ordinance. Based on these interests and goals, the group crafts a collective vision for the community of what the ordinance should achieve.


Once the vision is crafted, specific objectives are developed to help the community achieve this vision. To assure the objectives are achieved, stakeholders should brainstorm a multitude of methods, practices, standards, and procedures, negotiating among the parties to find management strategies that are work­able and balanced. These management strategies are then converted to performance standards which, along with other basic components of the ordinance, are then developed into a draft ordinance.

When the draft ordinance is complete, solicit public comments and forward copies to the community council, commission, and/or administrators. Be prepared for questions. Allow time to hear as many public comments as needed. Record public com­ments and review them with stakeholders and public officials.

Ordinance Standards and Flexibility

Basic performance standards should be flexible. The goal is to develop basic standards that avoid vague­ness or excessive technical details. A vaguely written standard that uses phrases such as “minimal distur­bance” or “reasonably feasible” without further defin­ing their meaning may not be enforceable or survive a legal challenge. If technical detail is needed, it may be better to write a basic performance standard that refers to a technical manual, such as ANSI A300 Stan­dards for Tree Care Operations; Tree, Shrub, and Other Woody Plant Maintenance—Standard Prac­tices, than to write an excessively detailed standard within the ordinance. Referring to a technical manual that is changed and updated on a regular basis will help prevent the ordinance from becoming outdated.

Flexibility can be achieved by allowing the city ar­borist or urban forester to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. These decisions could be based on site-specific physical and biological factors. Flexibil­ity is also achieved in the ordinance by including and ensuring a fair appeal process. The appeal process provides a check against the authority of the program administration, helping to ensure that decisions are being based on all pertinent information.

Evaluating and Revising the Ordinance

Evaluating the effectiveness of an ordinance after it has been adopted helps to ensure that the community is achieving the desired outcome. Formal reviews rely on statistical sampling methods and data collec­tion and analysis. Formal reviews usually result in reports. Informal reviews can rely on staff or expert observations, or upon citizen feedback, and result in annual presentations of ordinance effectiveness. A provision should be included in the ordinance that allows for periodic evaluations, ensuring that the ordinance is effective and up-to-date. By providing for regular evaluations, the need for revising the ordi­nance can be identified before a crisis develops.


Resources and Assistance

The following sources of assistance and resources may be useful when planning to develop or improve a tree ordinance for your community.

NC Division of Forest Resources

Urban and Community Forestry Program


1616 Mail Service Center

Raleigh, NC 27699-1616

(919) 733.2162


Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources

Extension Forestry

NC State University

Campus Box 8008

Raleigh, NC 27695-8008

(919) 515.5638

NC Cooperative Extension Service

Contact your local Cooperative Extension center lo­cated in your county. County contact information can be found online at www.ces.ncsu.edu.


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