Getting Started: 12 Steps to Writing an Effective Tree Ordinance
Whether your community is considering developing their first tree ordinance, or already has an ordinance in place and wants to improve it, the following 12 basic steps will guide you through the assembly process.
Depending on community policies, procedures, current workload and level of enthusiasm, the development timeframe of building an effective tree ordinance typically takes at least 1 year from initiation to adoption. Revising a current ordinance can take less time but be prepared for the “long haul.” You should take the time you need to create a tree ordinance that is focused and effective.
Step 1: Appoint a tree ordinance development coordinator
Having a single individual tasked with coordinating the development or revision of a tree ordinance streamlines communications, meeting logistics, and recordkeeping. The coordinator should allot adequate time to devote to this assignment if the development or revision is to move forward at a manageable pace and be completed in a timely manner. To reduce the workload, the coordinator can enlist the help of tree board members, government staff and members of the tree ordinance working group in distributing information, gaining public input, and helping with meeting logistics.
The coordinator should be able, willing and authorized to:
- Keep the development process moving forward.
- Contact potential working group members.
- Maintain a contact list of working group members, public officials and staff, other community leaders, and interested citizens.
- Coordinate working group meetings and maintain meeting minutes.
- Distribute tree care educational materials, information, and meeting schedules to the working group.
- Coordinate and facilitate public meetings.
- Coordinate, conduct, and facilitate research, assessments, and issue identification.
- Coordinate the development of a community forest vision by the working group.
- Present findings and tree ordinance drafts to the public and public officials.
- Facilitate the drafting of the tree ordinance.
- Maintain project records.
The individual chosen to coordinate the tree ordinance work may be city or county staff—perhaps the city or county arborist or city planner, a volunteer working on behalf of the community or a member of the tree board, or an appointed official such as a city manager, county commission chairperson, or city or county clerk.
Step 2: Build a Tree Ordinance team/working group
The main purpose of your tree ordinance working group is to provide you with input on the direction and content of your tree ordinance. You should include representatives from groups that will benefit from the ordinance and groups that are required to comply with the ordinance.
Include members that will be active in gathering, consolidating and providing input from major constituencies. Representatives from the following groups or persons that fill important roles in the community and in tree management should be considered for tree ordinance working group membership or to serve as technical advisors to the group. Non-governmental entities should be residents of the community.
- City department staff (public works, traffic, engineering, parks and recreation, community development, planning, etc.)
- Local arborist, urban or consulting forester
- Forest products industry representative
- Tree or environmental board member
- County Extension Agent
- Georgia Forestry Commission Forester
- City council members
- Landscape architects, environmental engineers, and other allied professionals
- Developers, builders, and construction contractors
- Residential homeowner association representatives
- Local business association representatives
- Garden Club members
- Environmental agencies representatives
Regardless of who you select as members of your working group, it is essential that you include staff, planning commission members, and tree board members who will have the authority to approve, adopt and implement the new tree ordinance. If these individuals do not sit on the group or attend the meetings, make sure that you provide them with regular updates in writing and take the opportunity to discuss the tree ordinance with them when you can.
Interested persons or groups not specifically invited as working group members can be kept up-to-date about meeting proceedings and public input sessions through e-mails or working group website page updates.
Step 3: Set a development schedule
Setting a development time frame is critical to moving the process forward and will help the committee understand the commitment required in time and energy. An accomplishment time frame and calendar should be produced and distributed with action milestones, meeting schedules and completion date. This will help members understand the length of the process and personal time requirements. It is important to understand that this schedule is not written in stone and may need to be amended over time as information flow, research and work schedules change. This may require sliding some accomplishment dates to a later time. Changes to the schedule and calendar should be communicated to committee members, government officials and the public.
Step 4: Educate, inform, and gather input
Throughout the tree ordinance development process, it is important to provide everyone in the community with information on trees and tree care, project details and progress, and how they can provide their input on tree issues that will be addressed in the tree ordinance.
Creating a common understanding in the community about the functions, benefits and value of trees, the biological needs and limits of trees, and the proper care of trees is essential prior to developing your tree ordinance.
Distribute tree care educational materials early and regularly on topics such as:
- Functions, benefits and value of trees.
- Tree care standards.
- Species characteristics and recommendations.
- Tolerance of tree species to construction damage.
It may be helpful to produce a community forest fact sheet about the current and past state of the community’s tree resource that includes specific information on the community’s tree resource, including its current extent, condition, benefits and value.
As new information on project progress or direction from the working group becomes available, distribute this information to staff, government officials, and the public. Keep records on project activities and report these activities to supervisors and public officials as often as they desire or require. Include:
- Working group membership
- Vision statement
- Tree ordinance objectives
- Meeting minutes
- Assessment results
- Draft ordinance or ordinance revisions
- Public input opportunities
- Public meeting schedules
The tree ordinance working group, public input meetings, and surveys can all be used to clarify tree issues and solicit comments on a draft ordinance. Public input is essential in creating an effective tree ordinance that is supported by the community. Public meetings should be advertised across the community well before they take place to make sure that interested persons can make arrangements to attend. Remember people can be passionate about trees! When you ask for public input, you will find that many people have strong feelings about tree regulation, both positive and negative. Expect to see this passion in public meetings and don’t let it discourage you or take it personally.
These meetings should be held at a time when people are generally available, following the lead of your community development department or other department that regularly schedules public meetings. Send out an initial meeting notice up to two weeks ahead of time (or as required by government regulations) but also send out a reminder two to three days before the meeting. In your announcement, clearly state the purpose of the meeting, the location, and the beginning and ending times.
Maintain control of the input process during the meeting by clearly stating at the beginning how input will be gathered. Keep a chart pad handy and enlist one of your working group members to record new issues, ideas and future discussion topics on the chart pad during the meeting. Consolidate this list after the meeting and send out to the working group and other interested individuals.
Step 5: Identify issues
Before you begin the process of developing (or revising) your ordinance, some issues related to trees and the community forest may already be apparent. The information you gain through community forest assessments and input during tree ordinance working group and public input meetings will add to your awareness of the issues that you may want to address in your tree ordinance.
You may not be able to address every issue put forward in public meetings in your tree ordinance, so have your tree development working group rank the issues identified. Once completed, you’ll have a good idea of which issues are believed to be the most important, and maybe most controversial. It may not be realistic or possible to address all the issues identified as high importance within the bounds of the tree ordinance, i.e. altering zoning or development codes. Remember, tree ordinances need to be about trees.
Step 6: Assess current conditions / canopy cover
Do you know…
- The percent of the community covered by tree canopy?
- The number, species and age composition, and health of trees growing on public street rights-of-way and other public properties?
- The rate of land development over the last 5 to 10 years (number of acres developed, by zoning district, by year)?
- The budget for community forestry activities, including the funding available for professional expertise in administering the tree ordinance?
Tree inventories and tree canopy cover studies can help to determine where trees are located, and their composition and health. This will be important information in guiding the development of your tree ordinance.
Your local GIS administrator should be able to provide information on the number of acres within each zoning district, and may also be able to provide information on how many parcels and acres are currently developed (and undeveloped) within each district.
MEASURING TREE CANOPY COVER
There are several methods that are used to measure tree canopy cover that vary widely in their complexity and expense.
DOT GRID METHOD: A simple, although time consuming, method of estimating the amount of tree canopy cover in a community is one in which aerial photographs are covered with a transparent dot grid, and every dot that falls on top of tree canopy is counted. The total number of dots that fall on tree canopies is divided by the total number of dots in the grid to get the percent tree canopy cover.
1/16th inch dots are placed every 1/2 inch (150 feet) in a grid over an aerial photograph at a scale of 1 inch = 300 feet. The type of cover under the dot is recorded for each of the dots.
This project can be done by the arborist, or by trained volunteers and government staff. One of the greatest advantages of using this method is to educate staff, tree board members, and other interested persons about where tree canopy cover exists and where it does not. (See illustration at bottom of page.)
I-TREE CANOPY: i-Tree Canopy is part of a software suite, i-Tree Tools, for community tree assessment developed by the Davey Tree Expert Company and the USDA Forest Service. It is available for free to anyone wishing to measure the tree canopy and other land cover in a neighborhood, city, county, or region.
i-Tree Canopy uses current aerial imagery that can be uploaded from their site. Users determine the sampling intensity they desire and define the land cover types they wish to measure. The program covers the study area with an appropriate number of measurement sites (dots, as in our dot grid method) for the desired sampling intensity. The user identifies each dot in one of the defined categories (i.e. tree / not tree), and after all dots are categorized, the program prints a set of reports and statistics, including the tree canopy cover percent and tree benefits.
For more information on i-Tree Canopy and other tree assessment tools, visit www.itreetools.org.
Step 7: Set goals and vision
Once you have an idea of the current conditions and issues associated with trees in your community, you can begin to look forward to what type of community forest you wish to have. Develop a vision statement that describes the future state of your community forest.
A vision statement is a description of what your community forest looks like in the mid- or long-term future. Vision statements should be aspirational and will be used as a guide for future action.
Example: Our community forest is cool and leafy green, and surrounds us where we live, work, and play. As you enter our city, you are aware of the beauty and abundance of our trees, which are an integral part of the natural and built environment.
Once you have a vision you can define goals for your tree ordinance. What purpose do you want the ordinance to serve? What is the intent of the regulations? Once you define the purpose and intent, these can be written directly into the tree ordinance.
Goals are the end toward which effort is directed. In terms of the community forest vision statement above, for example:
- a tree canopy cover goal might be to maintain no net loss of tree canopy cover
- to increase tree canopy cover wherever possible.
- to have a better distribution of trees across the community
Step 8: Develop a first draft framework
This is the point in the process where all of the work you’ve done in identifying tree ordinance issues, assessing current conditions and defining your vision and goals comes together in the first draft of your tree ordinance. This first draft should begin with selecting the components that will be included in your tree ordinance and creating an outline that will serve as the basic framework of your draft ordinance.
To get you started in building your tree ordinance framework, we have provided descriptions and examples of many of the components – depending on the type of ordinance being developed - that are found in tree ordinances in Georgia (see section X)
Before you begin selecting components and drafting your ordinance, look to other community programs, plans and policies affecting trees and the environment to find additional support for the ordinance you will be developing. Also look for current regulations in your locality that may conflict with your draft.
BUILDING ON OTHER COMMUNITY PROGRAMS, PLANS AND POLICIES
Your community may have other programs, plans, policies and regulations (such as landscape, stream buffer, subdivision or stormwater ordinances) already in place that incorporate trees in some way or another. You should plan on reviewing these regulations before revising or developing your tree ordinance to identify synergies, conflicts or cross purposes.
Step 9: Gather community comment and revise draft
Your working group, and the public, will need substantial time to review each tree ordinance draft and submit their comments. The project coordinator will need time to summarize the input, submit the summary to the working group and gain consensus on what changes are to be made, and then re-draft the tree ordinance to incorporate those changes. This draft, review, and revise process may occur several times before the proposed ordinance is ready to submit to the planning commission, city council or county commission for an initial vote. All of these entities should have had prior input and review of the draft so there will be no surprises.
Do not put “final” anywhere on your draft ordinance document until it is voted on and adopted! Calling your document “final” gives the impression that final decisions have been made on what the ordinance will contain and that you may not be receptive to changes. Instead, identify your document with the word “Draft” and a version number, such as 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 when major revisions are made. For minor corrections or wordsmithing that doesn’t substantially change the content, you can republish the draft with a version number plus a “point” number, such as Draft 1.1, Draft 1.2, etc. Your tree ordinance will not be final until it is adopted!
The review process should include field testing your draft regulations. Develop some real-life scenarios that will test the ordinance and show you what you need to clarify, add, or omit. Look at previously approved development site plans to see how compliance would differ from the current regulations.
Include an applicability and exemptions chart as part of the ordinance distribute and a copy along with your draft for review, such as the sample provided below.
APPLICABILITY AND EXEMPTIONS CHART
Develop a list of anticipated frequently asked questions specifically crafted for the public review of the working draft complete with your answers. This will help those reviewing your draft tree ordinance to better understand the regulations it contains. (See illustration below.)
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Below are some questions frequently asked by citizens and businesses during the tree ordinance building or rebuilding process. Be prepared for these and many more questions. Welcome all the questions that require you to revise your draft tree ordinance for better clarity, to do more research to avoid conflicts with other existing ordinances, and to make you aware of and consider the unintended outcomes that might result from the regulations you are proposing.
- Do I need a permit to cut down a tree on my property?
- Do I need a permit to harvest timber? Can my site be clear cut?
- As a developer, as a homebuilder, do I have to retain all trees on a development site, outside of the buildable area?
- How can I conserve trees if I need to grade the site for proper drainage?
- Can I plant a tree on the street right-of-way, in the tree lawn?
- My neighbors have a dead tree on their property. Can the city tell them to take it down?
Step 10: Adopt and implement
Your proposed tree ordinance will be ready for adoption after you’ve gained consensus on its desired content from your tree ordinance working group and then have drafted, tested, and revised it one or more times. The entire process of adoption can take a considerable amount of time, from a few to many months.
Expect to receive a lot of passionate input at this stage, but if you’ve educated, informed, and updated the public, staff and public officials throughout the process, you should not have any major opposition that will derail you as you move forward.
Gaining consensus does not mean that everyone will be 100% pleased with every provision, but in general your working group members should feel as though their input has been considered in creating the fairest tree ordinance that will meet the goals and create the vision adopted by the group.
MOVING THE DRAFT FORWARD
When the working group has a draft that they feel is ready to be considered for the next level of approval, it’s time to present the draft to the groups that will be involved in administering the ordinance or approving the activities, plans, and permits that it requires. This group may be the tree board, the planning commission, the city council or the county commission (These groups should have been included in review of all phases and drafts of the ordinance before a public presentation). This can be done in a regularly scheduled meeting of this group or a separate workshop where more time is available and the sole focus is the tree ordinance. At this meeting, you’ll introduce the proposed ordinance and answer questions about its content, implementation, and anticipated outcomes. You’ll gather input to use to revise the ordinance if needed.
Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to repeat the presentation and revision processes more than once by any of these groups.
Your city council or county commission have a well-defined process for public readings of your proposed tree ordinance, allowing public input or requiring separate public input sessions, and voting on its adoption. This should not be the public’s first opportunity to provide input. Make sure you understand the public comment process well in advance of these steps. Be prepared at these meetings to present solid facts and clear information on the purpose, intent and desired outcomes of each of the regulations included in the ordinance. Be familiar with all aspects of how the tree ordinance will be implemented.
If you are unable to clearly answer a question posed to you at any of these meetings, use that question as an opportunity to further evaluate and define the regulation or ordinance-related topic. At the next meeting, then, you’ll have more and better information to give in support of your proposed ordinance.
PREPARING FOR ADOPTION
As you begin the adoption process, also begin planning the details of how the ordinance will be implemented and administered. The ordinance adoption process may go quicker than you expect (hopefully), and you may need to make sure the enforcing entities (zoning, community development, code enforcement) are aware of the personnel, training, forms and information that are needed to be in place to ensure a smooth transition to the new regulations.
Step 11: Enforce and maintain
You will want to make sure that upon adoption and implementation of the ordinance, the administrator will be:
- Very familiar with the ordinance provisions and their purpose and intent.
- Knowledgeable about tree biology, maintenance, benefits and value.
- Prepared to enforce tree ordinance provisions and be consistent in enforcement.
- Prepared to maintain all necessary records.
Some forms may be required by your tree ordinance, such as a tree removal permit application or tree plan review application. You may want to be ready to provide some draft examples of forms, such as a tree ordinance compliance checklist, as an aid to those implementing the ordinance if requested to do so. The ordinance compliance personnel will want to have and be able to maintain good records that provide details of the tree and site conditions found during inspections, especially prior to the issuance of a certificate of occupancy.
Keeping good records is essential for post-development inspections and analysis. These records will provide information you can use to assess the actual outcomes of your tree ordinance, its administration, and its enforcement. Approved permits, tree plans, waivers, alternative compliance, inspection reports, notices of violation, and other pertinent records should all be maintained in accordance with city or county regulations.
If a community requires that tree density or other tree and site conditions be maintained in perpetuity, tree plans should be retained and available well after a development has been completed to be used in determining if a site is maintaining compliance. Compliance inspections using tree plans can be made on a regular basis, on a random basis, or when an issue with a site is observed or reported.
Inspection records can be particularly useful to identify where additional education of the public and businesses is needed or where “tweaking” of certain provisions might be helpful
Step 12: Review and revise as needed
Is your tree ordinance working and producing the outcomes you desire?
As has been mentioned on other pages on this website, tree ordinances often need to be fine- tuned after they are implemented. This ongoing maintenance of a tree ordinance, with one or many small or large revisions, will help you better meet your vision and goals.
There are many reasons why a tree ordinance should be regularly maintained, including to:
- Clarify confusing language.
- Remedy unintended outcomes.
- Provide greater flexibility in compliance.
- Incorporate new information gained from field experience.
- Incorporate new techniques, standards and best practices.
- Respond to new issues and community concerns.
In addition to maintaining the tree ordinance, if you have a tree ordinance supplement or administrative guidelines, you should regularly maintain these also. Regularly review the following to determine if changes are necessary.
- Tree species list.
- Standards and best management practices for tree care operations.
- Tree protection specifications.
- Construction details for planting, staking and protection.
- Application forms and checklists.
Don’t forget to also review on a regular basis the processes you use for site inspections, tree removal permit application processing, and tree plan review and approval to see if they are working as well as you and the applicants would like.
ASSESSING TREE ORDINANCE OUTCOMES
There are a couple of basic tools you can use to assess the outcomes of your tree ordinance. These include ongoing inspections, development assessments and measurements of tree canopy cover.
ONGOING INSPECTIONS: Ongoing inspections are essential to assess continued compliance on properties developed in accordance with the tree ordinance. Maintain a copy of all approved tree plans that will remain in effect after the certificate of occupancy is issued. Make sure that tree plans are accurately annotated with any approved changes prior to the issuance of a certificate of occupancy.
Develop a form to record the site and tree conditions you find on a site as you visit it randomly, or routinely, after the certificate of occupancy has been issued.
If you have follow-up inspections required by your tree ordinance, use those inspections to record the conditions found on the site. Build a database of the common problems seen on completed sites. Don’t forget to include what is working and has been successful, too.
DEVELOPMENT ASSESSMENTS: If your tree ordinance does not require follow-up inspections, then set aside time on a weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual basis for site and tree inspections on developed sites. You can use a single visit as both a compliance inspection (if your tree ordinance provisions apply in perpetuity) and to gather general information on tree species performance, maintenance practices, and how tree ordinance regulations are working.
Record information on soil conditions, maintenance practices, tree health, and species performance. Also, include any unintended outcomes that result from ordinance compliance.
Take surface temperature measurements during the assessment using an infrared thermometer; include measurements of car hoods, paved areas, grass, and mulch beds with and without tree shade; photograph the location of each measurement.
Take photographs of the conditions and trees on the site. Prepare a presentation for your tree board, planning commission, or city council on the results of the assessment. Focus on areas of improvement, while also presenting the best outcomes seen during the assessment.
Keep a list of the areas of improvement you have observed during ongoing site inspections and assessments. These will be useful when developing proposed revisions.
TREE CANOPY MEASUREMENTS: If you have set a tree canopy cover goal for your community or a no net loss policy for your tree canopy, you will want to periodically measure your tree canopy cover to determine if your tree ordinance is effective in moving you toward your goal or maintaining no net loss.
If you do not have any information on the amount of tree canopy cover you currently have, conduct a tree canopy cover measurement as soon as possible; then conduct additional measurements on a regular basis—such as every 5 years—to assess the effectiveness of your ordinance in maintaining, or increasing, your cover.
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