City Tree Ordinances

Does your community have a tree ordinance?  Is your community interested in protecting and promoting the health of its trees? If you answered yes, does the current ordinance provide the authority and flexibility needed to manage community trees or is it outdated and no longer functional? A flexible tree ordinance is a key tool that provides the legal authority and the direction of a successful tree program.

The ordinance should be developed in the early stages of a community's tree program. The ordinance assigns responsibility for the program's direction through the establishment of a recognized tree board or community tree manager and the opportunity to regulate tree planting and care practices in the community. 

Many communities have used local committees to develop or review existing ordinances. Because of diverse interests within the community, select a diverse committee including the city or community attorney, members of the park board, tree board, local Trees Forever Committee, city council, street department, utility representative, nursery representative, tree care provider, and others that work with or have an interest in trees in the community. Input from this varied membership will result in a more balanced ordinance. Work as a committee to define and draft the tree ordinance. Once the legal draft of the tree ordinance is satisfactory to the committee members, it is presented to the mayor and city council for formal adoption. 

The following sections are often included in tree ordinances. Not all may be necessary and there may be others which individual communities may wish to add to their ordinance. Remember the key in developing a tree ordinance is to make it usable for the individual community.

Title & Purpose- A brief description and why it is necessary (i.e. The purpose of this ordinance is to promote the beauty of ( ), IA by establishing guidelines for the selection, planting, care and protection of all trees on public property.)

Definitions- This section defines terms used in the ordinance such as city property, public tree, private tree, tree board, park tree, tree lawn etc.

Tree Board- This section creates the tree board and defines its makeup, term, procedures for making appointments and its charges or responsibilities. A tree board is an excellent way to bring together groups in the community that are concerned about tree management. In communities without a community forester a board is a critical tool in developing and achieving community tree management goals. 

Urban Forester or Community Tree Manager- This section may establish the paid or volunteer position of community or urban forester and the responsibilities of the position. The majority of Iowa's communities can not afford this type of position, so the tree related duties are often carried out by Public Works employees or volunteers. 

Authority & Responsibility- This section provides the authority for the person or group responsible for the community's trees.

Permits & Licensing- This section establishes a system to allow or prohibit tree management such as planting, maintenance and removal. (i.e. All persons or companies providing tree care services within the city limits must have a city permit , be bonded, and provide proof of all required insurance policies, including liability and workmen's compensation insurance).

Maintenance & Establishment Guidelines- This section sets the standards for tree management (i.e. All trees planted on the public right-of-way must be planted ( ) feet from the curb, ( ) feet from all drive ways, and ( ) feet from all corners and stop signs.) This section may also prohibit trimming practices such as "topping" on public trees.

Species, Cultivars, and Varieties- This section may include prohibited species, varieties, or cultivars; may limit planting of a species or develop a list of approved species for specific uses.

Obstruction- This section deals with public property clearances for privately owned trees.

Nuisance and Condemnations- This section defines and assigns responsibility for nuisance and/or hazard trees.

Protection of Trees- This section establishes action for the protection of trees during construction or development. 

Appeals- This section includes provisions for appealing decisions of the tree manager or tree board to a higher body such as the city council or mayor.

Interference- This section protects the community tree person from interference in the performance of their duty.

Penalties- This section indicates penalties for failure to comply with the tree ordinance.

Remember that ordinances vary in length and complexity, but the secret to success is to develop the ordinance to become simply another tool developed specifically for the individual community. Also, if rules and guidelines are set there should be appropriate methods and personnel to enforce such guidelines. Without appropriate enforcement, an ordinance is just another piece of paper. The tree ordinance should encourage tree planting and appropriate care for all the benefits we receive from our urban and community trees.