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Tree Ordinance

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.

Evaluating the Need for a Tree Ordinance

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. 

Steps to create a tree ordinance

1. Inventory your community’s tree resources.

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:

  • Species, size, location, age and condition of existing trees.
  • Unresolved tree-related issues such as uplifted sidewalks and trees posing a hazard to human safety.
  • Amount of canopy cover throughout your community.
  • Identification of unique ecosystems.
  • Identification of historic or particularly large trees.
  • How have land use changes, development and growth altered your community’s forests.
  • How these changes have and will affect your community’s quality of life.

2. Inventory your community’s current and historic tree management practices.

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. 

3. Identify your community’s needs and wants.

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:

  • Biological (those directly relating to the trees):  These could include increasing tree cover, species diversity or age distribution of the tree population, the control of insect and disease infestations and the identification of planting sites that avoid conflict with sidewalks and utility lines.
  • Management (those relating to the short and long-term management of tree resources): These could include the training of staff and volunteers, increased interdepartmental cooperation and communication and long-range planning.
  • Community (those that relate to how the community relates to tree resources and management plans): These could include outreach to the community at large and to interested groups such as scouts, schools and environmental organizations, planning community celebrations and offering classes on good care of privately owned trees.

Public opinion should be gathered during this step.  Public forums and surveys are two means of accomplishing this. 

4. Identify your community’s goals.

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:

  • Maximize Tree Cover through a program of tree care and replanting.
  • Improve property values by increasing the number of mature, well cared for shade trees lining residential streets. 
  • Preserve trees and keep them healthy by addressing issues such as topping and poor pruning practices, teaching good tree care practices to private owners and the regulation of arborists through a registration or licensing process.
  • Resolution of private tree issues through the permitting of tree removals.  This will protect against the indiscriminate removal by homeowners and developers.  A set of planting guidelines will help insure that newly planted trees are properly installed.
  • Providing for the replacement of trees lost during construction
  • Providing for the protection of trees on land being developed

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.

5. Identify the appropriate management tools to meet your community’s needs and wants. 

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:

  • Tree ordinance
  • Public outreach and education
  • Financial or technical assistance
  • Voluntary planting programs
  • Creating a tree advisory board

6. Prepare a tree ordinance.

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:

  1. Goals should be clearly defined and the ordinance should address how these goals will be attained.  Goals should be specific and easy to quantifiably evaluate.
  2. Acceptable and unacceptable basic performance standards should be set and the language used to define these practices should be clear and quantifiable so that the ordinance will be enforceable.  At the same time, communities should be cautious of including too many details, as materials and methods often change and this would render the ordinance out-of date.  Specific details about items such as allowed species and plant sizes should be included in a management plan, which can be frequently updated.
  3. Flexibility should be part of the ordinance’s design to allowed trained personnel to make decisions that factor in site-specific physical and biological conditions.
  4. Channels of responsibility and authority should be set, either to one to two people or a tree commission, and amounts of responsibility and authority should be commensurate with each other.
  5. The means of enforcement, including penalties for not following the ordinance should be clearly designated.  

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:

  • Title:  Brief description that reflects the purpose of ordinance.
  • Findings: Describes the community’s vision and perspective of itself in terms of its tree resources.  This section can also establish the legal authority of the ordinance.
  • Purpose: Clearly states the goals.
  • Definition of Terms:  Defines each term that is used in the ordinance, including what a tree is so that there can be no misunderstanding.
  • Applicability: Delineates the extent of the property covered.
  • Authority: Defines who is responsible for the work and whose has the authority to make decisions.  This could designate a single person (a tree manager), possibly already employed by the community, multiple people, or create a tree advisory committee.
  • Tree Committee:  If a tree advisory committee is created, this states how long the members are in office and who will appoint them.  It defines the governing rules of the committee, the number of members and required expertise and place of residence of members, compensation (if any), rotation of terms and how vacancies will be dealt with.  Tree committees can be either advisory or administrative, and this section should outline the responsibilities of the group, which could include reviewing and proposing revisions to the tree ordinance, public outreach and education, adjudicating tree-related disputes, approving permits for tree planting, pruning and removal and arranging for tree planting and removal.
  • Appeals: Establishes how decisions can be appealed
  • Permits: Delineates the process of getting permission to do removals, pruning or planting.
  • Enforcement: Defines who addresses violations and issues permits and stop work orders.
  • Penalties:  Sets fines and restitutions for being out of compliance with the ordinance.
  • Exceptions: Lists what allowances are made for unusual situations such as weather or emergencies.
  • Performance Evaluation: Designates who is responsible for monitoring the effectiveness of the ordinance and the basics of how the monitoring is to be done.
  • Public Notice: States how public meetings will be announced.
  • Severance: If one portion of the ordinance is disallowed, the whole ordinance will not be voided.
  • Effective date: Gives the date the ordinance will become enforceable.
  • Non-liability: This is the hold harmless provision that will protect tree commission members from liability from civil litigation.

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:

  • Utility trimming: Defines requirements and responsibilities.
  • Park trees: Defines management practices and responsibilities for management of trees in public parks.
  • Hardscape conflict resolution: This section sets priorities in the resolution of conflicts between trees and street hardscapes.  For example when repairs to sidewalks damaged by tree roots are made, this could direct the community tree manager work with the city engineer to minimize damage to the tree.
  • Guidelines for species diversity: Sets basic standards for species diversities, and directs the community to keep updated, specific guidelines in its tree management plan.
  • Arborist registration and licensing: Sets a registration or licensing process, which might involve showing proof of insurance and certification of training.
  • Requirements for private landowners: This could include permits and restrictions on development, tree protection during construction, tree removal, replanting and mitigation.  This section could require landowners to file plans or assessments of these activities.
  • Plan review process: This defines the process developers must follow to have their plans for new development reviewed/approved.
  • Tree replacement: Establishes how trees lost to development should be replaced.  Some processes could be requiring developers to set aside wooded areas, off-site reforestation, percentage replacement or flexible, no-net loss formulas.
  • Incentives for compliance: Defines incentives for compliance with voluntary measures.
  • Care of private trees: This can establish guidelines for when municipal staff should aid private owners, or for when private owners should hire professional staff.  Funding assistance for low-income residents could be established.
  • Tree Removal: Requirements for the removal of dead, dangerous or diseased trees.
  • Clearance limits: Sets tree clearance limits over roadways and sidewalks to allow for vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian traffic.
  • Buffers: Defines buffer requirements.
  • Landmark and historical trees: Establishes what defines landmark and historical trees and how they should be managed.  

7. Enact the tree ordinance.

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.

Examples of Tree Ordinances and Shade Tree Commissions in Pennsylvania




Radnor Township

Sample Shade Tree Ordinance, Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs

Susquehanna Township

Tree City, USA

  • List of cities in Pennsylvania that are Tree Cities.  To qualify to be a Tree City, an Arbor Day Foundation program, cities must enact a tree care ordinance, have a tree board or department, have a community forestry program with an annual budget of at least $2/capita and have an Arbor Day observance and proclamation.

History of Tree Ordinances

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.

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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 ( 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.


Nothing contained in this or any other document available at is intended to be relied upon as legal advice. The authors disclaim any attorney-client relationship with anyone to whom this document is furnished. Nothing contained in this document is intended to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending to any person any transaction or matter addressed in this document.
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