Developing a Tree Ordinance

It is a sad fact that tree ordinances are often developed as a result of public outrage over the loss of special trees. Perhaps less dramatic, but just as important, communities lose when old defective trees that are appropriately removed are not replaced. Who is responsible? We all are, of course. Trees are unnecessarily removed, damaged, or are not replaced because people in the community failed to plan, or ordinances designed to protect trees did not exist. People who wish to preserve and manage their community's forest and land resources must develop effective tree ordinances and see that they are passed. Laws that protect trees protect people and the environment.


Communities establish police, fire and school departments; they set aside land for libraries and playgrounds; they design local zoning and tax laws; that they do so is a function of their right to promulgate laws and regulations that promote the general welfare. The destruction and mistreatment of trees is a threat to the general welfare, as is mindless development. A tree ordinance establishes standards and sets guidelines. It is the legal framework within which local tree management activities are conducted for the general welfare or "public good." "Public good" does not mean mere "beautification", unless it benefits the whole community, economically and socially, as well as aesthetically.


If your community decides to establish a shade tree program and wants the legal authority to achieve program objectives, then it should adopt a tree ordinance. Tree ordinances are as different as the communities that develop them, but an ordinance may be designed to accomplish a number of objectives. An effective tree ordinance can:


  • Make your community's tree management program more visible.

  • Establish the program independent of changing public opinion and finances.

  • Help a newly-established tree management program take root.

  • Provide the channel through which city departments may interact, specify the relationship between the community and the forester (if a forester is appointed), and establish the nature and degree of public responsibilities to the community's trees according to specific standards.

  • Provide the means to educate the public about the benefits of the community forest.

  • Support the responsibilities of the municipal tree warden.

  • Be the means to regulate arboricultural practices such as planting, pruning, removal and the selection of appropriate tree species.


To establish an effective and equitable tree ordinance, it is advisable to follow four key recommendations:

  1. Establish a broad base of support.
  2. Realize that tree ordinances can provoke controversy.
  3. Minimize controversy by involving representatives from as many different political interests as possible (for example, the Chamber of Commerce, realtors, developers, local chapters of the Audubon Society or Sierra Club, garden clubs, various city departments such as planning, zoning, parks and recreation).
  4. Tailor the ordinance to meet your community's unique needs.

You should form a working committee of seven to ten people who have the time and skills to study the problem and communicate their findings effectively. (Bear in mind that the goal of the committee is to hammer out a tree ordinance that will, insofar as possible to do so, satisfy the array of interests peculiar to your community.) The working committee must:


  • Consider models appropriate to use as guides, such as "A Standard Municipal Tree Ordinance" prepared by The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA, P.O. Box GG, Savoy, IL 61874). Study the ordinances of adjacent communities.

  • Consider your community's special needs. A tree ordinance designed for a big city on the coast, for example, is unlikely to be appropriate for a village in the rural, northwest part of the state. Differences in climate, soils, the incidence of insect pests and diseases, and the distribution and condition of native tree species will determine the parameters of what you can do in your community, and these natural factors will be affected further by political and economic traditions.

  • Consider related ordinances, both state and local. In Connecticut there are important state laws that apply to developers and committee members should inform themselves of these laws.

  • Determine whether the community prefers to regulate or educate, or establish an ordinance that is a mixture of regulation and education. For example, you may choose to refulate with respect to the use of licensed and insured arborists. You may also be wise to educate the public about the benefits of a tree ordinance and a management plan.

  • Ascertain the magnitude of the tree ordinance.

  • Establish the extent of application, the degree to which it can and will be enforced, and the manner in which it may be appealed, you need to incorporate key legal/structural components in the ordinance:


    • Location: State where the ordinance is to be placed in the municipal code. Many communities have included it within the safety and welfare part.
    • Title: Should be succinct and reflect the main goal of ordinance.
    • Statement of purpose: Establish what "public good" will be served by the ordinance. The statement of purpose is a pronouncement to the effect that the community will manage the forest to assure the continuation of the benefits that it provides for everybody. It can state that the ordinance will promote public health and safety by regulating tree management activities; conversely, it can include a statement that describes the effect the destruction of trees (or open land) has on public health and welfare.
    • Authority: Legal authority for the Shade Tree Committee must be established.
    • Responsibilities: List the duties of the Shade Tree Committee. Establish its right to administer: arboricultural regulations, the development of a master plan, the establishment of a permit system and licensing requirements for arborists, the creation of policies with respect to trees planted on private land, the education of the public about the benefits of the community forest, the identification of future projects to improve the forest including the preservation of historic and notable trees and groves), and pest control programs.
    • Severability: In the event that a court of law invalidates a section of the ordinance, the severability clause protects the remainder.
    • Interference/Enforcement: There should be a statement to the effect that failure to comply with the ordinance is illegal and will subject the offender to prosecution. An appeal procedure must also be included.
    • You need to become familiar with Connecticut State Statutes that relate to trees, especially those that relate to the powers and duties of municipal tree wardens (reference fact sheet number 5). Consult a lawyer for this section.
    • Incident Procedure: Written procedures for dealing with accidents must be established. Keep in mind that herbicide and pesticide use may also provoke legal proceedings and officials must be prepared to respond. A lawyer should draft this section.
    • Budget: The Shade Tree Committee must have the authority to allocate funds.
    • Word the ordinance loosely with respect to standards, guidelines, and procedures so that changes will not require time-consuming formal review and will allow the tree board to respond to specific situations as they arise. The right to administer and implement it, and the right to establish standards, guidelines and procedures should be stated in the ordinance.

      Be Shrewd.

Avoid pitfalls that may threaten the ordinance. An ordinance that is the fruit of compromise is better than no ordinance at all, and a tree ordinance works only to the extent that a community supports it. To be effective it must be administered well and enforceable in the courts. Finally, zoning boards and planning commissions must work closely with developers in the planning stages or it is unlikely that very many trees will be planted or saved by ordinances.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Connecticut's Urban Forestry Program contact:

Robert M. Ricard, Ph.D., CF
Senior Extension Educator

* Urban and Community Forestry

* Human Dimensions of Natural Resources
West Hartford Extension Center
1800 Asylum Avenue
West Hartford, CT 06117
Tel: (860) 570-9257
Fax: (860) 570-9008





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