September 24, 2007
By: Paul Frisman, Principal Analyst
You asked about municipal authority regarding tree trimming on both public and private property. This office is not authorized to issue legal opinions and this report should not be considered one.
With some exceptions, the law gives municipal tree wardens authority over trees on private property if the tree's roots or branches extend onto or over any public roads or grounds. The law does not give tree wardens authority over trees that are solely on private property.
Municipalities may regulate the trimming of trees on private land in certain instances (such as removing those in a wetlands, or on subdivided property being developed) but it does not appear that such authority extends to tree removal on other private property that has already been developed. It also does not appear that general municipal or planning and zoning powers allow towns to regulate tree removal on this type of property.
A proposed Shelton ordinance would require an owner to obtain municipal permission to, among other things, cut down more than 10 trees in one year.
POWERS OF TREE WARDENS
By law, town selectmen must appoint a tree warden (CGS § 23-58). The warden has care and control of all tree and shrubs in whole or in part within the limits of any public road or grounds, except those (1) along state highways under the transportation commissioner's control and (2) in parks or grounds under the jurisdiction of parks commissioners.
The warden's authority extends to any limbs, roots or other parts of the tree that extend or overhang the limits of any public road or ground. The state Supreme Court held in Muratori v. Stiles and Reynolds Brick Co. (128 Conn. 674 (1948)) that the legislature intended to give tree wardens “exclusive control…of all trees standing within the limits of a highway or any parts of trees extending within these limits, though the trees themselves stand on private grounds.”
By law, whenever, in the warden's view, public safety demands the removal or pruning of any tree under his control, he may remove it at the town's expense. Unless the tree's condition poses an immediate public hazard, the warden must give notice of his intent to remove or prune the tree at least 10 days before doing so. Any person who objects may appeal in writing and obtain a public hearing, and an aggrieved party may appeal to Superior Court.
The warden, with the selectmen's approval, also may remove any trees under his jurisdiction infested by insect or fungus pests (CGS § 23-59).
No law explicitly permits municipalities to regulate the removal of trees on private property. But the municipal powers statute suggests that they may do so protect to public safety. This statute allow towns to provide for the planting, rearing, and preserving of shade and ornamental trees on streets and public grounds, and to control insect pests and plant diseases (CGS § 7-148). The latter provision apparently would allow municipal officials to remove trees on private property if they pose a risk to public health or safety.
It appears that towns could regulate tree removal under their land use ordinances. The law allows zoning commissions to encourage the most appropriate use of land through regulation, and to provide for soil erosion and sediment control (CGS § 8-2). Arguably, a commission could prohibit a developer from removing trees if doing so would cause soil erosion. Zoning commissions also may establish village districts to protect an area's distinctive landscape and historic structures, and may regulate, among other things, the maintenance of public views and other elements the commissions finds appropriate to maintain and protect the character of the village district (CGS § 8-2j). Although a zoning commission might attempt to prevent tree removal under one of these provisions, these laws do not explicitly authorize it to regulate tree trimming on private property.
MUNICIPAL REGULATION OF CLEAR CUTTING OF TREES
Municipalities can restrict clear-cutting and other forest practices on proposed new development requiring wetland, subdivision, and zoning approval. Under certain circumstances, they can regulate clear-cutting unrelated to development under wetland and ridgeline protection regulations, but the law generally preempts municipalities from regulating commercial forest practices on undeveloped land. Further information can be found in OLR Report 2006-R-0242 (attached).
PROPOSED SHELTON ORDINANCE
This proposed ordinance (attached) would require anyone conducting certain activities on lots of more than one-half acre to obtain permission from a municipal natural resource officer, a position the ordinance would create. The officer's permission would be required for any activity that will or is likely to result in (1) clearing a parcel of one-half acre or more, (2) cutting or destroying more than 10 trees meeting certain criteria in less than a year, or (3) cutting a particularly significant tree. Anyone cutting or destroying a tree covered by the ordinance would be fined $100 per tree.