Boston City Council Floats a Tree Protection Ordinance

Written by: Isabella Gambill, Assistant Director of Climate, Energy, & Resilience


In fall 2022, the City of Boston released its 20-Year Urban Forest Plan (UFP), which analyzed urban tree canopy on both private and publicly owned land in Boston and laid out a series of recommendations for the conservation and expansion of tree canopy over the next two decades. Since the UFP was released last fall, Boston City Council and the City Environment Department have been exploring opportunities to implement its recommendations, from staffing up the new Urban Forestry Division to encouraging equitable workforce development in urban forestry through Powercorps Boston. One of the key developments regarding the possible establishment of a tree protection ordinance through Boston City Council could affect both private and public trees throughout the city and would help to protect urban tree canopy and provide community relief and resilience in the face of extreme heat.

Before the Urban Forest Plan was released in 2022, City Councilors Arroyo and Braedon attempted to move a tree protection ordinance through City Council without success. In January 2023, with new evidence from the UFP and backing from fellow councilors, Boston City Councilors Arroyo and Braedon filed the 2023 Ordinance Establishing Protections for the City of Boston Tree Canopy, with the support of Councilors Lara, Bok, Coletta, Fernandes Anderson, Flaherty, Louijeune, Mejia, Murphy, Worrell, and Flynn. The 2023 tree protection ordinance draft does the following:

  • Clarifies guidelines for the maintenance, removal, and replacement of both public and privately owned trees in Boston. Guidelines for privately owned trees include:
    • A need to apply for a tree removal permit from Boston’s Tree Wardens, with the option to apply for a waiver in special circumstances.
    • Standards for the replacement of private trees, with additional enforcement parameters for trees removed without a permit (including the potential for stop work orders and additional penalties if done incorrectly).
  • Establishes a Street Tree Stabilization Fund, which shall be used solely for the purchase, planting, and maintenance of trees in the City of Boston.
  • Creates an Urban Forestry Committee to help govern tree canopy in Boston, working alongside the City’s Urban Forestry Division.
  • Includes a safety of life and property clause, which affirms that any trees posing immediate safety or health hazards may be immediately removed with the written or verbal consent of a Boston Tree Warden, with additional written record to the Urban Forestry Committee whenever practicable.

Although the initial draft tree protection ordinance applies to both private and public trees in Boston, at a March 2023 City Council hearing in front of the Government Operations Committee, Reverend-Chief Mariama White-Hammond and her staff suggested bifurcating the ordinance moving forward so that publicly owned trees will be dealt with first, to be followed by a separate ordinance applying to privately owned trees. As A Better City members and colleagues affirmed in a Developer Focus Group for the UFP in spring of 2022, and as was discussed at the March 2023 City Council hearing—any tree protection ordinance applying to privately owned land will need to work in partnership with developers, private landowners, and local communities to be successful and to avoid unintended consequences.

A Better City will continue to track the progress of the draft tree protection ordinance and intends to host a working session with relevant City Councilors and Urban Forestry Division staff once an updated draft becomes available; in particular, ABC will be engaging members on possible amendments to the tree protection ordinance components applicable to privately owned land. Please contact Isabella Gambill for more information on Boston’s potential tree protection ordinance.

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