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A tree ordinance establishes authorization and standards for addressing a wide range of issues regarding a municipality’s trees. The ordinance should be developed and implemented as part of a broader effort to identify and address a community’s tree-related goals.
A tree ordinance is part of a broad range of tools used to manage a community’s trees and should be integrated into an overall tree management strategy. Your community should evaluate if a tree ordinance is an appropriate tool to help meet your resource management needs. The work done in making this decision will be essential for creating an effective ordinance as well as for developing other management tools. To start, create a working group to assess your community’s needs and wants, resources and existing ordinances. They will draft the ordinance, build community support, and present it to the local government for adoption and approval.
Some suggested members for the group are a realtor, developer, garden club member, local arborist, planner, environmental group representative, landscape architect, forest landowner, interested residents, public works officials, forest products industry representative, business owner, lawyer and an engineer. Of course, you won’t be able to have each of these represented, and the composition of your working group should represent the demographics and needs of your community. Strive for a working group that balances having people with needed expertise with those who represent a wide variety of views and those that can dedicate the needed time and effort into creating an ordinance. The working group should strive to have a minimum number of members while meeting the group’s needs. Prior to starting work, the working group should develop rules governing decision making and processes for conflict resolution.
The working group must engage decision makers as well as the whole community throughout the process, and having at least one person on your working group skilled at this will be important. Good decision makers to involve in the process are government leaders (such as city council representatives and county commissioners), local government administration officials (such as public works, planning and zoning commissions, and park and recreation officials), non-government community leaders (volunteer and community service organizations that may have important connections or may be interested in supporting the process), and environmental non-profits, which could be a valuable source of information. You may not have support of every decision maker, but it will still be important to keep them informed of your work. When an overall lack of support is faced, a public outreach/education campaign may be appropriate.
Involving the community and garnering support is essential throughout the process, especially as many parts of the ordinance may rely on voluntary compliance. Active public input will help the working group to create a tree ordinance that reflects your community’s unique needs and desires. Rossi (1990) uses an example to show the fallout from passing an ordinance without community support; in this case, after the ordinance was passed, citizens tried to cut down trees before they reached the diameter specified for protection to circumvent the ordinance.
An inventory of your community’s tree resources gives you the basic information needed to make management decisions and later on will provide baseline data that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of your tree management activities. Although a thorough assessment is ideal, communities will have to work with their available expertise, staff, volunteers, time and budget.
Items to consider including in the inventory:
Before changing how your community conducts tree management, it is important to understand how it currently does, and historically has, managed its tree resources. Collect all data that your community may have that has anything to do with current municipal tree care practices. This should include current ordinances, rules and restrictions and how tree issues have been historically handled, such as who the decision maker was and who implemented the management decisions. This data may have to be collected from written records as well as interviews with government officials. Consider ordinances and regulations not directly relating to tree management, such as zoning and planning, that could affect tree resources.
The working group will need to identify the short and long-term needs and wants of the community. These can be categorized into three groups:
Public opinion should be gathered during this step. Public forums and surveys are two means of accomplishing this.
The working group should determine a set of succinctly stated goals that can garner community support. These goals should take into account your community’s available financial, human and natural resources and levels of community support.
Some possible goals of a shade tree ordinance:
The goals listed above are general ideals to work towards. Your community should adapt these goals to include specific, quantifiable measures of success that are reasonable for your resources. These goals must be developed with community participation so they reflect community values and use of tree resources and have a higher likelihood of being followed.
The next step is for the working group to identify the appropriate tool or tools to address your community’s tree management needs. The following are some tools that can be used:
If your community decides that a tree ordinance is an appropriate tool, it is time to develop it. If possible, review tree ordinances of nearby communities and speak with members of their working group to learn about successes and problems they had in their creation process, as well as learn how they dealt with issues similar to those your community faces. Your community though should avoid the tendency to simply copy the tree ordinance of another community, as it will not reflect your community’s unique needs and government structure.
The ordinance should address 5 key areas:
The following further breaks down the typical sections of a tree ordinance. The two main portions of the ordinance are the basic topics and the special topics.
The basic topics section can be thought of as the boilerplate or the ordinance core. It is usually in the beginning of the ordinance, consisting of the following sections:
Special topics are additional provisions that are needed to reach the community’s goals and may consist of any number of items, including what is suggested below:
The working group will need to go through multiple reviews and drafts of the tree ordinance and involve government officials and citizens in the review process. They must ensure that the ordinance is clear, reasonable, concise and understandable. If the ordinance is not easily read and understood, it will likely not be followed. An attorney should be involved in this process to ensure legal integrity. Copies of public comments should be kept, as well as copies of each draft published for public review. The standard procedures for your community for enacting an ordinance specific should be followed, and consulting with a lawyer familiar with them is advisable.
Ensure that once the ordinance is passed, it is widely publicized, and those directly affected by it, such as government officials, tree care professionals, developers and public works employees understand how to apply it.
The earliest tree ordinance in the United States was drafted around 1700 by William Penn in order to set standards for tree planting in some of the early settlements around Philadelphia. During the late eighteenth century, trees were established in village greens and along streets throughout the eastern United States in emulation of European cities. Detailed tree ordinances began to appear a century ago.
As of 1984, the University of Pennsylvania could identify a hundred communities nationwide with tree protection laws. Around this time, the United States began to experience an unprecedented increase in the number of tree ordinances that continues to this day.
As of fall 2009, the National Arbor Day Foundation had designated more than 3300 “Tree Cities”. One of the four requirements for being designated a Tree City is the adoption of a tree ordinance. At this same time about 310 Pennsylvania municipalities had active municipal tree programs.
Jason Lubar and Robert Wells of the Morris Arboretum were the original authors for this document and Don Oaks, Forestry Consultant of Pine Grove, PA (firstname.lastname@example.org) reviewed it.
The text describing the processes used to develop a tree ordinance, as well the types of tree ordinances, are based on “Guidelines for Developing and Evaluating Tree Ordinances” (Swiecki, T. J.; Bernhardt, E. A., 2001), published by The International Society of Arboriculture.
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Text may be excerpted and reproduced with acknowledgement of ConservationTools.org and the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.