Did You Know? Public Shade Tree Law

One of Weston’s scenic roads (officially designated). Credit: weston.org

One of the clearest signs that you have entered Weston from other towns is the abundance of shade trees along Weston’s roads. You don’t even need the sign on 117 from Waltham that says “Entering Weston” because you can tell immediately that have you crossed into the “next station to heaven”- gorgeous trees, including one amazing sycamore on the road west to tree heaven–one town to the north, Lincoln. Yes, Lincoln wins for now, but the Owl refuses to give up the war. Except if they involve their Minute Men, and then Weston will wave the white flag. Yikes.

Unfortunately, when trees are not cared for routinely, or have asphalt up to their toes, or salt chucked on their roots, they get stressed. Sometimes their “friends” get cut down on either side, and suddenly they are battling the elements all on their own. White pines are particularly unhappy with change and stress–and come in for more than their fair share of criticism. In many cases, humans cause their own tree problems.

While I could digress for a long time about trees (I already have), the point here is that Massachussetts has a public shade tree law, and it governs what can be done with trees on public ways. While the tree warden (in Weston’s case, that is DPW Director Tom Cullen) can mark a tree for removal, all public shade trees get an appeal by way of a public hearing. (Full disclosure here: I took an arborist course this spring, but am not a certified arborist). If a public shade tree is removed by a private citizen without permission, said citizen is in big trouble–fines can be assessed and the town Lorax will pay a visit that will not be friendly.

Here’s the legalese:

Chapter 87, Section 3 of MA General Law

Except as provided by section five, public shade trees shall not be cut, trimmed or removed, in whole or in part, by any person other than the tree warden or his deputy, even if he be the owner of the fee in the land on which such tree is situated, except upon a permit in writing from said tree warden, nor shall they be cut down or removed by the tree warden or his deputy or other person without a public hearing and said tree warden or his deputy shall cause a notice of the time and place of such hearing thereof, which shall identify the size, type and location of the shade tree or trees to be cut down or removed, to be posted in two or more public places in the town and upon the tree at least seven days before such hearing and published in a newspaper of general circulation in the city or town once in each of two successive weeks, the first publication to be not less than seven days before the day of the hearing or if no such local newspaper exists then in accordance with the provisions of section six of chapter four; provided, however, that when a public hearing must be held under the provisions of this section and under section fifteen C of chapter forty prior to the cutting or removal of a tree, such hearings shall be consolidated into a single public hearing before the tree warden and the planning board, or if there is no planning board, the selectmen of a town or the city council of a city, and notice of such consolidated public hearing shall be given by the tree warden or his deputy as provided herein. Any person injured in his property by the action of the officers in charge of the public shade trees as to the trimming, cutting, removal or retention of any such tree, or as to the amount awarded to him for the same, may recover the damages, if any, which he has sustained, from the town under chapter seventy-nine.

And of course, because it is a law, there are amendments–or rather clarifications–in section 5, having to do with hazard trees, smaller trees, etc.

All public trees (or even homeowners’ private trees, if you ask me) should undergo a careful risk assessment before removal. A standard tree risk assessment includes tree health evaluation, site assessment and “target” risk. Targets can be human, or utility poles or buildings. The key question is can the target be moved, because 80 year-old swamp oaks cannot. Here’s the ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) risk assessment form–ask your certified arborist to use it. Long-term careful maintenance is critical to Weston’s trees–and it is not inexpensive if one looks only at costs (I see you, Fin Com). Weston is fortunate to have a Tree Advisory Group which looks out for the trees–contact them if you have questions.

TAG’s banner on its way to Arbor Day planting

Trees can’t speak (to us) and they can’t move, but they do want to live. One can only hope that Weston finds a way to a tree by-law which will protect the towns biggest asset, the trees, even on private land. In the mean time, public trees in Weston are protected under Massachusetts General Law. Now you know.

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