Tree Policies and Regulations

Just as there are many kinds of trees in Philadelphia, there are many kinds of laws governing the planting, maintenance, and removal of trees. These laws, policies, and regulations vary depending on what kind of tree was planted, when it was planted, and whether it was planted on private property or public property. Some policies are written into the code of the City, while others have grown up alongside of it and gain power from past decisions and current opinions. Listed below are the main tree policies and regulations for the City of Philadelphia.

Street Trees

Ownership: The Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation (PP&R) has exclusive custody and responsibility for the street trees on the streets of Philadelphia. This includes the planting, setting out, removal, maintenance, protection and care of street trees. 1 Individuals and groups must receive a permit from PP&R to perform these tasks. Violation of these policies can result in a fine up to 300 dollars. 2

Sidewalk maintenance: The property owner is responsible for maintaining the condition of sidewalks. There is no exception for damage to sidewalks caused by tree roots. 3, 4

Guidelines for Planting Approval 5: In order for a street tree to be planted it must be approved by the City of Philadelphia Street Tree Contract Management Office. Restrictions and requirements include:

  • Minimum pit cut size of 3’x3′
  • Not in front of steps, doorways, or alleyways
  • 30′ from stop signs and traffic lights
  • 15′ from light poles, utility poles, street signs and fire hydrants
  • 15′-30′ from other trees
  • 5′ from driveways
  • 30′ from street corners
  • 5′ from man-hole covers, storm drains, and main utility lines
  • 18″ minimum from residential utility lines
  • 36″ from steps, stoops, or walls
  • no planting in between handicap parking signs
  • buildings or houses that are “For Sale” will not be approved
  • locations where sidewalk is in disrepair will not be approved
  • Trees on Private Property (Yard Trees)

    The majority of laws about trees on private property are a part of “common law”: laws that come about as a result of tradition and legal precedent. These laws are not written anywhere, but are generally accepted and agreed upon by society.

    Ownership: The position of a tree trunk determines ownership of a tree on private property. All branches and fruit of the tree belong to the tree owner. Products of the tree (leaves, sap, fruit, etc.) that fall onto another person’s property are not a legal liability of the tree owner.

    Maintenance: Adjacent property owners can invoke “self help,” which allows them the legal right to prune tree branches or roots that cross the boundary onto their property. However, an adjacent property owner CANNOT cause harm that leads to the death of a tree. If they do so, they could be fined for trespass or negligence.

    Hazardous trees: If there is a hazardous tree that an adjacent property owner feels is a hazard and the tree owner refuses to remove it, the adjacent property owner can file a “nuisance claim” to have the tree removed. In the event that a hazardous tree causes damage, it is the responsibility of the injured party to provide the “burden of proof” that the tree was hazardous or the tree owner was negligent.

    Trees in Alleys: Alleys, driveways, and/or retaining walls are private property. They belong to the property owner and the City does not own or maintain them. It is the responsibility of the property owner to maintain them in a safe and sanitary condition. 6

    Zoning and Development

    Development of lots greater than 5,000 square feet in area require a zoning permit application that includes street trees within the landscape plan. The only exemptions are: parking lots and garages, and lots with a single-family, two-family, parks and open space, or urban agriculture use. 7 Failure to install, replace, or maintain the required trees is a violation of Zoning Code. 8

    All healthy trees on a lot that are removed, damaged, or destroyed as a result of development must be replaced with trees of 2.5″ DBH or higher. Trees can be exempt from this requirement if they were determined by a certified arborist to be dead, damaged, diseased, hazardous, or an undesirable species in its current location. 9

    All proposed tree plantings at new developments must be approved by a city arborist. The City may not approve plantings in developments in order to comply with street tree planting guidelines (listed above, under “Street Trees”).

    Heritage Trees and Tree Preservation

    A heritage tree is a tree of any species on the Philadelphia heritage tree list (found here) that has a DBH of 24″ or higher.

    A heritage tree may not be removed from any property unless (1) a certified arborist has determined that the tree is dead, damaged, diseased, or is a threat to public health and safety, OR (2) the Streets Department has determined the tree impedes public services or is a hazard to traffic, bicyclists, or pedestrians. If these cases apply, the heritage tree may be removed provided that the applicant replaces the removed tree. 10