Tree Committee drafting bylaw to expand state protections of public shade trees

May 8, 2024

Some may be familiar with it, but Dartmouth’s Tree Committee would argue that the majority of Bay Staters are unaware of the state’s only law protecting public shade trees — Chapter 87. 

Tree Committee member Susan McLaren said it's difficult to keep people in compliance with a law they are simply unaware of and so she is currently a part of a subcommittee drafting a bylaw that would bring more awareness to tree protections as well as expand them for the town of Dartmouth. 

“There's been a loss of the canopy in the town,” she said. “We need to reverse that trend. We can't just keep losing trees. We have to plant more trees.”

McLaren said the changes the subcommittee is recommending are to clarify definitions, expand the authority of the law and help the town manage its trees better. 

Chapter 87 defines public shade trees as trees along public ways, which does not include state roads. These trees are overseen by the tree warden and with approximately 200 miles of roads in Dartmouth, that’s a “big job,” McLaren said.

The law restricts the cutting, trimming and removal of those trees without a permit from the tree warden, she said. Those who break the law could be charged a fine of up to $500, “which isn't much when you think about what trees cost and to plant and how important they are to us, especially as they get bigger over time.”

The law also allows municipalities to plant “setback trees,” according to McLaren. 

Due to sidewalks and other obstructions, planting a new public shade tree isn’t always an option in some locations, she said. This law allows municipalities to plant trees within 20 feet of a public way.

Approximately 50 other municipalities in the state have added a bylaw or ordinance to expand these protections. McLaren said so far, the subcommittee has five “key” recommendations for Dartmouth’s. 

The first recommendation would be to expand the definition of a “public tree” to include trees that may be on private property but overhang onto a public way, existing setback trees and trees on the sides and rear lot lines.

The second recommendation would be to require replanting or payment of the value of that tree into a tree fund when a tree is removed “for whatever reason,” McLaren said. That being said, the third recommendation would be to create a tree fund that would be supported through these payments as well as donations and fines.

The fourth recommendation is to impose a fine for violators of the bylaw — in addition to the existing state penalty. She said this isn’t to gain money, but to deter people from violating the law.

She added the final recommendation would be to protect trees during construction “in certain situations,” including building on a vacant lot, demolishing an existing structure and expanding the footprint of an existing structure by more than 50%.

In those situations, McLaren said the applicant would need to submit a tree inventory of the property, indicating locations and measures taken to protect them. Any trees of a “substantial size” that are removed have to either be replaced or have the value paid into a tree fund.

She said the subcommittee has been reviewing these recommendations with various town boards and key stakeholders and hopes to hold a public session in the future to gain community feedback before taking it to Town Meeting.