Tree ordinances are among the tools used by communities striving to attain a healthy, vigorous, and well-managed community forest. By themselves, however, tree ordinances cannot assure that the trees in and around our communities will be improved or even maintained. Tree ordinances simply provide the authorization and standards for management activities. If these activities are not integrated into an overall management strategy, problems are likely to arise. Without an overall strategy, management will be haphazard, inefficient, and ineffective, and the community forest will suffer.
This larger management view is commonly lacking when ordinances are developed. Local ordinances are often developed in response to public outcry over specific perceived problems. This "band-aid" approach frequently leads to ordinances that are not consistent with sound community forest management, and may in fact thwart good management efforts. For example, public outcry has led to the development of many ordinances designed to protect old "heritage" trees. Unfortunately, most of these same ordinances allow the routine destruction of younger trees. The end result may be an unsustainable community forest, short on young trees and long on old, declining trees. By focusing too narrowly on individual trees, such ordinances may contribute to the degradation of the community forest over the long term.
A tree ordinance is not a panacea for poor or inadequate municipal tree management. Nor is it a replacement for a comprehensive community forestry program that is fully supported by the local government and community residents. Properly applied, tree ordinances can facilitate good management of community tree resources. Improperly applied, ordinances can legitimize counterproductive practices and undermine the long term success of the community forest.
Types of ordinances
In 1990, we conducted a study of city and county tree ordinances in California (Bernhardt and Swiecki 1991). We reviewed 159 enacted city tree ordinances and 9 enacted county ordinances in addition to a small number of proposed ordinances. This sample represented about 50% of the city tree ordinances and 80% of the county tree ordinances in effect in California at that time.
For the purposes of our review, we grouped tree ordinances into three basic categories:
Although other types of ordinances, such as grading ordinances, may be related to trees and other vegetation, our discussion will be limited to these three categories, which encompass the overwhelming majority of all tree-related local ordinances.
Effectiveness of existing ordinances
The effectiveness of a tree ordinance can be influenced by many factors. Do the residents support or oppose various ordinance provisions, or are they even aware of them? Is the ordinance enforced adequately? Does the ordinance account for environmental limitations that affect tree health, growth, and survival? Does the local government have the financial resources to fulfill ordinance requirements? Since the answers to these questions will vary from place to place, even very similar ordinances can have quite different outcomes in different communities.
In our 1992 survey of city and county tree programs in California (Bernhardt and Swiecki 1993), we asked tree program managers about the effectiveness of their existing ordinances. The majority of respondents from cities and counties with existing ordinances believed that their current tree ordinance was in need of revision. In some cases, respondents from different programs within the same city had widely divergent opinions on the effectiveness of their existing ordinance. Enforcement was not the only issue affecting effectiveness ratings - 52% of the city respondents felt that tree ordinance enforcement was adequate. (A note of caution here: many of these respondents were probably responsible for ordinance enforcement in their cities.)
As we discuss in Part 3, Evaluating the urban forest and ordinance performance, it is possible to objectively assess the performance of a tree ordinance. This assessment requires both an evaluation of the ordinance and related regulations and evaluation of the urban forest itself. In our analysis of California tree ordinances, we looked to see whether each ordinance had the structural elements necessary for effectiveness. Although ordinances may vary widely in form, content, and complexity, an effective tree ordinance should meet the following criteria:
2. Responsibility should be designated, and authority granted commensurate with responsibility.
3. Basic performance standards should be set.
4. Flexibility should be designed into the ordinance.
5. Enforcement methods should be specified.
6. The ordinance should be developed as part of a comprehensive management strategy.
7. The ordinance should be developed with community support.
Tree protection ordinances nearly always begin with a stated goal, such as "to prevent wanton destruction of trees", or "to preserve as many trees as possible during the development process". However, goals such as these may be too general to allow for meaningful evaluation. How many are "as many as possible"? The lack of clear, specific goals is a common shortcoming of many tree ordinances.
In most cases, the most efficient way to manage the urban forest is to have a single person responsible for overseeing all tree-related activities. This allows for better coordination of management activities and reduces conflicts between departments. However, in small communities, it may not be possible to have a single central tree authority. Responsibility may be split between a tree commission, which sets policy and has administrative duties, and city staff, which is responsible for operations and enforcement.
The tree program manager should be vested with the authority necessary to carry out his or her responsibilities. A reasonably clear link between responsibility and authority is found in many tree ordinances. However, in some ordinances, responsibility appears to exceed authority, whereas in others, authority is granted, but specific responsibilities are not stated. The management of the urban forest is likely to suffer when responsibilities are ill-defined or the authority to act is not granted.
Besides stating what is regulated, an ordinance should set basic standards for performance. Many older ordinances are deficient in this regard. For instance, many ordinances require tree planting in conjunction with new construction. However, relatively few ordinances set standards for the eventual amount of canopy cover or shading that is to be provided, or the level of species diversity to be achieved. Similarly, many ordinances require an extensive permit process before native trees can be removed, but few set a standard for the maximum amount of canopy that can be removed overall. If basic standards for performance are not set, it is possible that all individual actions taken will conform with the ordinance, but that the overall goals of the ordinance are never achieved. Effective performance standards address the urban forest as a whole rather than focusing exclusively on individual trees.
Excessively vague standards (e.g., "as much as possible") may not only be unenforceable, but may not survive a legal challenge. In 1999, a Fulton County Superior Court Judge ruled in favor of developer against the City of Atlanta because a section of the city's tree ordinance lacked sufficient objective standards. The section in question included the following language (underlined sections are our emphasis):
Although the concept advanced in this provision may be reasonable, additional language is needed to more clearly define what constitutes "minimum disturbance" or the "maximum number". For example, tree retention standards based on a percentage of the existing tree density or canopy cover (see Provision 32. Conservation of forest and woodland resources during development) could provide a sufficiently objective standard for assessing whether a project complies with the ordinance....the city arborist shall require that improvements be located so as to result in minimal disturbance to the natural topography of the site and the protection of the maximum number of mature trees on the site. It is the specific intent of this section to require that damage to mature trees located within setback and required yard areas and to trees located on abutting properties owned by others be minimized to the greatest degree possible under the particular circumstances, as determined by the city arborist in the city arborist's discretion.[Atlanta, GA: 1999 Code of Ordinances Part II, Ch. 158, Art. II, Div. 2, Sec. 158-104]
While avoiding the pitfall of vagueness, an ordinance should also avoid slipping into the abyss of excessive technical detail. Many ordinances have focused on very detailed implementation standards instead of setting basic performance standards. For example, many ordinances include lists of species that are allowed or prohibited for use as street trees. Others specify the size of planting stock to be used in plantings. Implementation standards such as these change as new methods and materials are developed and old ones fall out of favor, and as a result, ordinances with these details can quickly become outdated. If detailed specifications are needed, they are more appropriately placed in the urban forest management plan, which can and should be updated frequently.
About three-quarters of the ordinances have a process for appealing decisions. The appeal process provides a degree of flexibility, in that it serves as a check against the authority of the tree program manager. Ideally, this helps to ensure that decisions are based on all pertinent information, and that they stand on technical merit. Unfortunately, appeals may also serve to undermine good urban forest management if they routinely allow political pressure to override the decisions of competent tree specialists.
In ordinances with enforcement provisions, many kinds of penalties are employed. Fines, jail terms, and forfeiture of performance bonds are among the penalties invoked in both street tree and tree protection ordinances. Many jurisdictions also require specific replacement plantings as penalties. In some street tree ordinances, occupancy permits are withheld until required trees and landscaping are satisfactorily installed. Many of the penalties available appear to be sufficient to help deter offenders, but only if consistent enforcement makes it likely that violators will be cited and penalized.
An ordinance is not a panacea for poor or inadequate management of community tree resources. Properly applied, an ordinance can help facilitate good management. Improperly applied, ordinances can legitimize counterproductive practices, provide disincentives for tree conservation, and undermine the long-term sustainability of the urban forest. By focusing on community forest management, rather than simply regulation, communities can determine whether an ordinance is necessary, and what its role should be. By following the process we present, Developing a Community Forest Management Strategy, communities can develop effective ordinances that are uniquely suited to meet their specific needs.
It seems that relatively few communities have followed this approach in developing their tree ordinances. Far more commonly, tree ordinances are drafted after reviewing a few existing ordinances or "model" ordinances. As a result, we found that many California tree ordinances were very similar to one another. In several instances, two or more communities had identical ordinances. Certain frequently-copied provisions are found unchanged in many ordinances, often complete with dated terms or concepts. Although it is possible to construct an ordinance using a "cookie cutter" approach, such an ordinance is unlikely to be well integrated with a comprehensive urban forest management strategy.
Passing a highly restrictive ordinance in a nonsupportive community is not only politically difficult, but may be counterproductive. Rossi (1990) described such a situation that occurred after the passage of a tree protection ordinance. Local citizens attempted to circumvent the ordinance by cutting down trees before they attained the diameter specified for protection in the ordinance.
As a practical matter, most tree ordinances rely heavily on voluntary compliance. Few communities would support the concept of a patrolling "tree cop" that seeks out violations. However, citizens in many communities are willing to voluntarily comply with restrictions they perceive as reasonable, and report obvious violations to protect their local tree resources. To be successful, tree ordinances should not impose regulations that most local citizens are unwilling to support.
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