Who actually owns our street trees?

The answer should be clear.

It’s not, at least not to me.

  • “The City of Atlanta owns them, Jim. That’s obvious. After all, they’re in the public right-of-way. You’re forbidden by law from removing or injuring those trees, but the City itself can do whatever it wants with them. Clearly, the trees belong to the City.”
  • “You own them, Jim. After all, you’re the one who’s legally responsible for maintaining that strip along the street (e.g., keeping it level with the sidewalk, keeping it free of holes and weeds, pruning the trees themselves). If the City has to step in and do the maintenance for you, it can charge you with the expense. If the City abandons its right-of-way along the road, you’re the one with the reversionary right. And so on. Clearly, the trees belong to you.”

Totally confusing.

I mean, get this. (Unless, I’m misunderstanding something here.)

  • The City of Atlanta can plant a tree in front of my house. (As a courtesy, the City or its designee may give me an opportunity to decline. If the City’s designee is Trees Atlanta, and it almost always is Trees Atlanta, you will absolutely be given that opportunity.)
  • The City will then require me to maintain the tree, including keeping it pruned (see Sec. 138-14(b) of the Streets, Sidewalks, and Other Public Spaces Ordinance).
  • But if I prune the tree incorrectly, the City can FINE me for that (see Sec. 158-26 of the Tree Protection Ordinance):

Destroy means any intentional or negligent act or lack of protection that is more likely than not to cause a tree to die within a period of five years, as determined by the city forester or city arborist. Such acts include, but are not limited to … removing in excess of 20 percent of the live crown of the tree …. In addition, topping, tipping, or any similar improper pruning practices will automatically be deemed as destruction of a tree.

The proposal for a new tree ordinance appears to go further. It defines a public tree as follows:

Public Trees. No person shall damage, prune, remove, maintain, plant, or otherwise affect any tree of any size in any public right-of-way, park, or other City property without having first obtained a permit or other authorization from the City.

So I’m supposed to get a City permit or authorization before I “affect” trees growing along the street in front of my house, which “affecting” I am legally obligated to carry out?

Okay, okay. Yes, I’m being intentionally obtuse to make a point.

Obviously, the general public (i.e., the City of Atlanta) and private property owners EACH have legal rights with respect to street trees. We SHARE responsibilities.

It’s like everything else in cities. Because residents live cheek by jowl, everyone has to to accept heavier responsibilities and stricter limitations than someone living in the middle of nowhere.

Given all that, it’s really important that we have some clear rules and abide by them.

One rule is that random individuals must not take it upon themselves to prune a street tree in front of someone else’s house. This is not cool:

That’s obvious, right? THAT TREE IS NOT YOUR PRIVATE PROPERTY. If you happen to “destroy” a tree by pruning it incorrectly, you’re putting the abutting property owner in legal jeopardy.

Trees Atlanta has a blanket permit to maintain trees throughout the City. Moreover, IPNA has a Tree Watch Committee with trained volunteers who can be held accountable for tree maintenance undertaken by the neighborhood.

The status of street trees is complicated enough without the unauthorized, unasked-for, unaccountable interventions of anonymous individuals.

Always contact Tree Watch with your questions and complaints about our public trees. If we don’t have the answer or can’t help, we’ll find someone who does and can.

One thought on “Who actually owns our street trees?”

  1. Stumbled on this looking for additional information on why the COA won’t come trim or maintain the crappy Bradford Pear trees throughout Castleberry Hill, which trucks continuously hit and could cause further damage to vehicles or people. Well said since this is basically the same run-around we’ve received. Thank you 🙂

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