Tree Maintenance and Responsibilities

Trees can provide much to a community, from appealing landscapes to environmental benefits. At the same time, they can cause issues regarding maintenance and responsibility. City officials should carefully review plans and ordinances that properly detail who is responsible for the maintenance and removal of trees in the city while noting where trees can be planted.

Tree Responsibilities

As detailed in Code of Iowa Section 364.12(2)(c), property owners can be required to maintain trees in the right-of-way that abuts their lot: “The abutting property owner may be required by ordinance to maintain all property outside the lot and property lines and inside the curb lines upon the public streets, except that the property owner shall not be required to remove diseased trees or dead wood on the publicly owned property or right-of-way.”

While the city is responsible for the removal of dead and diseased trees in the public right-of-way, this provision does not grant the adjacent property owner any authority to require the city remove a tree from the public right-of-way that is healthy, but unwanted. In fact, the city has the authority to adopt an ordinance that requires the adjacent property owner to trim the trees located in the “parking” in order to ensure visibility at intersections and a clear sidewalk for pedestrians. As with a nuisance, if the property owner fails to properly maintain the tree, the city may perform the work and assess the cost to the property owner in the same manner as a property tax. At the same time, the city does retain the authority to remove a tree, healthy or otherwise, from the public right of way should it find it necessary.

Trees can also lead to disputes between neighbors. While a dead or diseased tree can certainly rise to the level of a nuisance that needs to be addressed by the city, often it is merely the placement of the tree and the potential for future property damage that leads to the dispute. Many cities consider these types of disputes to be private matters that the property owners must address on their own or through their private attorneys.

Planting Trees in the Right-of-Way

The future cost of maintenance and removal is one the reason that many cities have adopted ordinances that prohibit or regulate planting trees in the public right-of-way. Trees can also interfere with the use of the right-of-way for utility fixtures. However, there are certainly aesthetic and environmental reasons a city may want to have tree-lined streets. There are cities that encourage the planting of trees in their city, especially those cities participating in the Tree City USA® program. If the city does allow the planting of trees in the right-of-way, it may want to consider adopting an ordinance that regulates the placement and type of tree allowed through a permitting process.

Tree Planning & Tree Boards

To ensure trees are maintained well and planted in proper places, it is advisable for cities to carefully plan for future tree activities. A long-term strategy may be the appointment of a city tree board that incorporates citizens and organizations from the community that have an interest in the matter. Tree boards can provide assistance to the city by:

  • Serving in an advisory capacity to the city.
  • Submitting recommended guidelines to the city governing the planting of recommended tree species in public parklands and rights-of-way.
  • Submitting recommendations regarding a tree planting program for the city.
  • Reviewing matters regarding the planting and maintenance of trees on public property and rights-of-way.

Trees Forever, an Iowa-based nonprofit organization, provides numerous programs that can assist cities with tree planning initiatives, including where to locate trees to maximize environmental and energy-efficiency benefits, help increase property values and enhance the appeal of neighborhoods.

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