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Tree Ordinance Components

1. Ordinance components common to most ordinances

The tree ordinance components that may appear in both public and private tree ordinances are listed below and linked to further information.

  • Title
  • Authority
  • Purpose and Intent
  • Administration
  • Applicability and Exemptions
  • Definitions
  • Special Tree Categories
  • Technical Standards
  • Enforcement


The title of your tree ordinance can be used to provide an initial indication of the focus of your tree regulations. 

A tree ordinance’s focus and content may be limited to trees, but some communities also include buffer or landscape requirements in their tree ordinances.  In some communities, tree regulations are included under the broader sections of “vegetation”, “environment”, or “natural resources”.  Or, they may be included within the unified development code, design standards, or other landscape requirements.  The subsection addressing trees within these broader code areas is considered the “tree ordinance” and is more specifically titled, such as “tree preservation”, “trees and shrubs”, or “tree protection and replacement”.

Tree Conservation Ordinance

If you are primarily concerned about conserving existing trees and forested areas, you may want to title your ordinance a Tree Conservation Ordinance.

Tree Protection Ordinance

You may want to title your ordinance a Tree Protection ordinance if you are primarily interested in protecting specimen trees on development sites, or all public and private property trees.

Public Tree Management Ordinance

You may want to title your ordinance this if you are primarily interested in establishing the framework for management of trees on public property.

Tree Canopy Conservation Ordinance

If you are primarily interested in maintaining or increasing your current tree canopy cover, you may want to title your ordinance a Canopy Conservation Ordinance.

Buffer, Landscaping and Tree Protection Ordinance

If you are going to include buffer, landscaping and tree protection regulations together in your ordinance, you may want to title your ordinance this way.


If you are creating an ordinance that regulates buffers, parking lots, or landscape design, it is not specifically a tree ordinance and requires significantly more work, time and public involvement. This generally limits the efforts of what might be better accomplished by a separate ordinance regulating those issues. 


Authority generally refers to two types:

1.By whose authority the ordinance is enforced: Police power of the City, County government, etc. whose duty it is to enforce all ordinances.

2.The department within the governmental entity who will be making decisions and approving plans, applications and permits relative to the requirements of the tree ordinance.  This might include the Community Development Director, Arborist or Code Enforcement Department.

Purpose and Intent


The purpose of any tree ordinance is to provide the basic framework for the conservation and management of community trees, but tree ordinances can be adopted for a number of reasons.  The purpose of your tree ordinance should be clearly stated at the beginning of the document and both the purpose and intent of the tree ordinance should be specific to your community.  Use your community vision and goals to develop a concise purpose statement.


The intent of the ordinance should be clearly stated up front, as it is important to establish the context of the regulations that follow. It should be clear, accurate and positive.

Because of possible community concerns related to the widespread regulation of all trees in a community regardless of ownership, it may be important to let the community know what is NOT the intent of the ordinance, especially if there are unfounded fears that a certain restriction will be included.  Do this in meetings and in information distributed to the community instead of in the intent section of the ordinance. Address these concerns directly and be specific, clear and accurate about the intent of the tree ordinance throughout the process.


It is important to consider, and then define in the tree ordinance, the individual who will be assigned the responsibility and authority for the administration of the tree ordinance. The administrator should be a member of the government staff, and while sometimes this is the city or county arborist or urban forester, public works, community development or planning department director. Tree ordinances usually state that the administrator may designate someone to administer the ordinance.  For example, “the administrator of this ordinance is the director of community development, or his/her designee”.  The day-to-day administration is often given to the city or county arborist, urban forester, or planner, or to staff in the public works, community development, or other department.  Sometimes the community will hire a private contractor who is an arborist to carry out the day-to-day plan review and enforcement. Whoever has the role of administrator of the tree ordinance should have a solid knowledge of trees, their needs, tolerances, and proper care.  


The applicability section states to what types of property (ownership) the regulation applies. Many will state that it applies to all real property.  Throughout the ordinance, further clarification of applicability and exemptions is often included. Beyond this initial statement of applicability to all real property, define the applicability of your tree ordinance by considering your issues and goals.  If the issues you need to address involve public and private property, then the applicability should reflect this.

If the primary issue you want to address is tree loss related to development, then your ordinance should be applicable when the development process is initiated on private property lots and developments through development permits.

If the primary issue you want to address is the loss of large, mature trees and tree canopy in general from already developed property, then you may want to include regulations that require a permit for tree removal from residential, commercial, or all properties—wherever the loss seem to be most significant.


Exemptions to the ordinance may include properties on which little tree loss occurs such as single-family residential properties or already developed properties.

Exemptions to tree ordinance requirements may be appropriate for trees, activities, properties, and conditions that are not under the reasonable control of the tree owner or are inconsistent with the permitted use of the property. Activities by public or semi-public agencies and utility providers may also be exempt, as they may be already regulated by other contracts with the community.  These groups may, however, be strongly encouraged to conduct tree care operations according to arboricultural standards.

Standard exemptions usually include:

  • Grandfathered projects–any project for which a land disturbance permit has already been issued as of the date of adoption of the ordinance
  • Horticultural operations such as plant or tree nurseries, botanical gardens, and tree orchards in active commercial production
  • Removal of dead and diseased or insect infested trees
  • Trees that present a danger or hazard to the health, safety and welfare of the public (may require a permit or notification post-removal)
  • Tree removal during a period of an emergency, such as a tornado, ice storm, flood or other act of nature (may require a waiver by the administrator)
  • Timber harvesting that is part of ongoing forest management in agricultural districts

 In addition to the standard exemptions, communities may also exempt the following from compliance with the tree ordinance:

  • Activities performed by federal, state, county, municipal or other governmental agency during the course of their daily work, except that best management practices for tree care shall be incorporated into the activities
  • Single-family residential developments
  • Residential lots of record
  • Commercial building sites in the downtown district

Charting exemptions

Because application of exemptions can be a confusing issue, the development of an exemption chart maybe helpful in explaining the regulation.

(See sample chart at bottom of page.)


It is important that your tree ordinance include definitions of technical terminology and other terms that have specific or unique meanings used in the ordinance and to be consistent with standard arboricultural and forestry terminology and definitions.  Putting all of these definitions in their own section, as opposed to defining them as they occur in the ordinance, will increase the conciseness and clarity of your ordinance or make reference to a definitions list or Glossary in a “Standards of Arboricultural or Development Practices” document. (See Tree Ordinance Glossary in the Resources section.)

Non-arboricultural definitions that you wish to include should be consistent with those cited in other parts of the city or county code, such as zoning or stormwater ordinances. 

Special Tree Categories

Special tree categories are used by communities to identify, protect and promote the trees of highest value in their community forest through regulations in the tree ordinance.

Georgia communities value large, landmark, historic, heritage, native, ornamental, and unique trees and therefore regulate the management of these trees in their tree ordinances.

Common tree categories defined in Georgia tree ordinances are listed below.

Specimen trees: usually trees of certain species or types quality and of a minimum DBH (See “Specimen Tree Standards” in Resources Section.)

Protected trees: this is a collective term for trees from one or more of the special tree categories and other trees, such as public trees or trees above a minimum DBH on private property.  The disturbance or removal of protected trees is regulated in tree ordinances, either through the tree removal permitting process or tree plan approval process.

Exceptional, Heritage, Historic, Significant or Landmark trees: these categories are similar in that they often must be nominated by the property owner and approved by the tree board and/or the city council or county commission.

Official tree species: identifies a signature tree species of the community

Technical, Administrative, and Construction Standards and Specifications

Technical standards, administrative standards, best management practices, and standard construction details for tree care operations and development activities taking place in proximity to trees are examples of doctrines that have been developed to help ensure that tree ordinance regulations conserve and protect existing trees and provide for tree establishment. These guides and standards documents are available from multiple resources. Recommended standards, copies, and source locations may be found in the Resources sections of this website.

It is important to remember that a significant amount of time and effort (and money) is required to develop, administer and implement a tree ordinance.  The positive result of expending these resources can be maximized by including requirements for compliance with professional standards for tree care operations in your tree ordinance.

Approved Tree Species List

The tree species list is a tool that helps a community control the size, quality and placement of trees in their community.  This list usually includes the species common name, Latin name, and tree size.  Tree size usually refers to the height the tree will attain at maturity and is listed either by size category or a range of maximum height in feet.  Some lists include the approved locations for a species–such as beneath overhead utility lines, in utility corridors, in parking lot islands, in large landscape areas, as street trees in tree lawns, or near drainage structures or riparian areas. Lists are often arranged by tree size category, such as small trees, medium trees, and large trees or overstory trees and understory trees. Communities can also control the planting of invasive or exotic species that are unsuitable in the landscape through their tree species lists.

Property owners who are exempt from the tree ordinance regulations usually do not need to comply with the tree species list when planting on their property, but it can be used by them to guide their tree planting decisions.


Consistent enforcement of the tree ordinance provisions is key to its effectiveness and the likelihood of effective enforcement is usually dependent on how the following questions are answered:

  • Who will have the authority to enforce the ordinance?
  • How much knowledge do enforcement personnel have about trees, and their care, health, structure and tolerances?
  • How much time will it take to enforce the tree ordinance, and how much time do enforcement personnel have to devote to education, monitoring, inspection, and enforcement?
  • How much flexibility in waiving requirements do enforcement personnel have?

Some Keys to Successful Enforcement

EDUCATE:  Educate individuals, businesses, and other community groups in the tree ordinance requirements and technical standards. Hold an initial information session and then again semi-annually on the topic of the tree ordinance.  Hold an annual workshop on basic tree care standards open to all interested persons.  Encourage developers and building contractors to attend the basic tree care workshop.

COMMIT RESOURCES Select one (or more) individuals with sufficient time and tree care knowledge to monitor regulated activities, inspect development sites, and enforce all aspects of the ordinance. Provide continuing education for enforcement personnel in basic tree care standards.  Encourage enforcement personnel to talk with other communities about tree ordinances and their enforcement to share techniques and results.

PROVIDE FLEXIBILITY:  Identify sections in the tree ordinance where enforcement personnel have discretion to waive or modify requirements while still adhering to the intent of the ordinance. Define those sections in which strict adherence to the tree ordinance is critical to success.

CONDUCT INSPECTIONS:  Include in the tree ordinance when mandatory inspections will take place, the purpose of those inspections and if random inspections will also be conducted.  Include the procedures and sequence of events that will take place when a violation is found during an inspection.

DEFINE VIOLATION PROCEDURES:  Commonly, these procedures include a written notice, followed by a stop work order if the violation is especially egregious or is not corrected within the specified timeframe on the notice of violation, and the penalty that will occur after the stop work order if the violation is not corrected.

Record and report the nature of violations and enforcement activities to the appropriate board or public officials to keep them informed. Solicit input on ways to improve compliance and reduce the occurrence of common violations.

ESTABLISH FINES:  State in the ordinance the exact penalty or fine that will be assessed when a violation occurs.  In most Georgia communities, the fine for a single violation is limited to a maximum of $500 or $1,000 for violations of any code provision.  In many tree ordinances, fines are assessed for each tree involved in the violation and for each day a violation occurs.  This can result in substantial fines and provides an incentive for avoiding violations or correcting them in a timely manner.

Some communities also establish an additional fine for the damage or destruction of a public tree, which is equal to the appraised value of the tree before the damage or destruction occurred.

MAINTAIN CONSISTENCY:  Maintain awareness of what is happening on a site and be quick and consistent in enforcing tree ordinance requirements.  Don’t vary enforcement from site to site, person to person, or over time, unless authorized to do so by the tree ordinance administrator.  When regulations are waived, record such waivers in writing.

NEXT:  Tree Ordinance Components for Public Tree Ordinances

NEXT:  Tree Ordinance Components for Private Tree Ordinances

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Sample exemption chart