Charlotte plans future of trees in right of way

In the fall of 2020, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 171, which established new laws regarding the authority of town tree wardens.

The new legislation upholds the traditional responsibility of the tree warden to protect trees on public property and along roadsides, and it also gives towns wider latitude to decide what trees, or what areas, are subject to protection. These new statutes have important implications for the trees in our public rights of way.

The Selectboard made a site visit to view a highway access permit application location on Morningside Drive. Also at issue are some trees that the homeowner removed. Photo by Chase McGuire
Photo by Chase McGuire

The old laws, dating from the 1920s, specified that the removal of “shade trees” on public land or within the public right of way was prohibited without authorization by the town tree warden. What, however, is a “shade tree”? This was left open to interpretation, and different towns took different approaches.

Here in Charlotte, my predecessor, Larry Hamilton, considered all trees to be shade trees since all trees provide shade. This was a common interpretation employed by other towns and municipalities. The implication of this was that a landowner needed to have permission from the tree warden to remove any tree within the public right of way, which varies in width, but is generally 25 feet from the road center line.

The 2020 legislation clarifies the meaning of a “shade tree” by defining it as “a shade or ornamental tree located in whole or in part within the limits of a public way or public place,” provided that the tree was planted by the municipality or is designated as a shade tree in a municipal shade-tree preservation plan. The “public way” is the rights of way held by a municipality and a “public place” is any public property, excluding forested areas such as town forests or parks. Properties owned or controlled by the State Agency of Transportation, like the Route 7 corridor, are also excluded.

Lacking a shade-tree preservation plan, therefore, the only trees protected from removal under current laws are trees that were planted by the town.

Act 171 anticipates that many towns will expand the limited default authority of the tree warden to cover other trees in public ways and places. This can be accomplished by designating certain trees as “shade trees” in a shade-tree preservation plan.

I have convened a task force to collaboratively develop such a plan for Charlotte. We are working on draft elements of the plan and are seeking public input to help with the process. To that end, we are hosting a public hearing on Dec. 14 5:30-6:50 p.m. at the Charlotte Town Hall. There will be a Zoom option for people who want to participate remotely.

The purpose of the hearing will be to explain additional details about a possible plan, outline options and invite public input. Our goal is to have a shade-tree preservation plan to present to the selectboard for consideration this coming spring.

Options for allowed tree removals in the right of way include:

  • Default/current: Only town-planted trees are protected. Landowners can remove any non-town-planted tree in the right of way without permission.
  • Diameter limits: Trees above a certain diameter size would require permission to remove. Diameter limits discussed range from 3-12 inches.
  • Designated trees/designated areas: Specifically designated trees and areas would be protected.
  • Basal area: This is a measure of tree density. Landowners would be required to maintain a minimal density of trees within the right of way.

When a town shade-tree preservation plan is ultimately approved by the selectboard, it will include guidelines for allowed removals of hazard and invasive trees and shrubs, road cuts and road sight lines, as well as for thinning for tree health.

In addition to the planned public hearing, Charlotters may provide feedback directly to me or members of the Shade Tree Task Force, which includes Frank Tenney (selectboard), Junior Lewis (road commissioner), Alexa Lewis (deputy tree warden), Sue Smith (deputy tree warden), Robin Coleburn (tree tribe), Vince Crockenberg (tree tribe), Brett Towle (tree tribe) and VJ Comai (tree tribe and Burlington city arborist).

Our goal is to create a plan that contributes to the beauty of our town and that fosters the environmental benefits of trees. To that end, we appreciate any public input.