New legislation has been introduced to modernize Vermont's tree warden statutes and other statutes related to public trees. The draft bill was introduced in the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry on February 16, 2018.
UPDATE 3/20/2018: The request to draft the bill did not make it to official bill status. It is no longer being considered.
Areas Identified for Clarification in the Proposed Amendments
Vermont's tree wardens are a critical factor in the health of public green spaces and the aesthetic quality of a community. Today, tree wardens are on the front lines of a host of historical and modern issues, such as the decline of aging urban trees, changes in the regional climate, environmental stressors like natural disasters, and weaknesses in past municipal planning initiatives. Thus, the guidance and regulations placed on the duties of tree wardens must be strategically outlined to allow landscapes across the state to flourish and function. Town officials, landowners, road crews, state officials, and tree wardens themselves have voiced a growing concern to modernize the statutes with clear language.
The proposed tree warden statute amendments encompass four objectives:
- Define terms: Several key terms are lacking a definition including “public tree,” “hazard tree” and “public ways and places.”
- Create consistent language: There are several statutes that reference the management of roadside trees that are in conflict, including penalties and roles.
- Establish a hearing process: The statutes call for a hearing process when removing certain trees but does not define or guide the required process.
- Add reporting element: To enhance technical assistance to communities, establishing a reporting element of tree warden appointments to the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.
Recent Examples of Conflicts due to Lack of Clarity in the Statutes
Public Hearing Process:
In 2001, the Town of Holland selectboard sought to widen a half-mile stretch of class 3 town highway to accommodate large vehicles. To make the upgrades, the town needed to remove several trees. Since the trees themselves were not a hazard, the town tree warden was required to hold a public hearing. However, no hearing took place. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the tree warden had no authority to remove the trees without first holding a public hearing as it violated the landowner’s due process rights. A clear removal process is needed.
In 2017, farmers in Addison County removed a hedgerow along their farm and in the right-of-way. According to the tree warden statues, the trees are under the control of the tree warden and should not have been removed without a public hearing process and approval of the tree warden. However, language in Title 19 (town highways) granted the abutting property owner the right to remove trees. The town has issued a fine of one million dollars to this landowner. As of February 2018, the ensuing legal battle has not yet been resolved. Consistency and clarity over managements rights is needed.
Background of Vermont Tree Wardens
When the first European settlers arrived in Vermont, they found the land carpeted with forests. As they set to work clearing the forests to create tillable farmland, little thought was given to the protection of the trees and the resources they provided. Trees were felled in the name of progress and by the middle of the nineteenth century, much of Vermont’s forests had cleared.
It was in 1884 when the value of public trees began gaining recognition. That year, the General Assembly passed an act to encourage the planting of shade trees in public areas. Since 1904, Vermont General Law has mandated that all cities and towns in Vermont appoint a tree warden who is responsible for trees in public ways and places. The tree warden mandate is still in effect today under Vermont General Laws, Chapter 24, Section 1 and Section 106.
A tree warden is a person in charge of shade trees on public town lands. The word “warden” was a common title for natural resource officials in the late 1800s. Being a warden signified a unique legal responsibility: to guard public resources against destructive forces that might include insects, diseases, or people themselves. As both manager and advocate, the tree warden must protect the trees and, where necessary, protect the public from the risk of diseased or injured public trees.
Vermont statutes continue to support community trees by requiring the appointment of a tree warden by each town and city to act as overseer of public trees, organizing and implementing tree planting, maintenance, and protection programs. Appointed by the selectboard, tree wardens have three major areas of responsibilities: to remove the trees that cannot be saved, to salvage those that can be saved, and to implement a tree preservation program for the town. Tree wardens usually serve on a volunteer basis and work in concert with town tree boards or conservation commissions.