Regulation aims to better protect public trees

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Whitefish wants to make sure its trees are protected, and that those who might damage trees could be punished.

The city is enacting a new ordinance that provides specific guidelines for the maintenance and removal of trees within the public right of way.

City law has historically addressed the regulation of trees within the city strictly through the subdivision code, according to city Parks and Recreation Director Maria Butts.

“Although this section of code clearly identifies the regulations for planting and maintaining trees within subdivisions, it does not adequately address all public trees in right-of-ways, parks or other open spaces,” Butts said.

City Council Nov. 20 unanimously approved the new ordinance, which sets out a number of protections for public trees. The ordinance says that it is “unlawful for any person to intentionally damage, cut, carve, transplant, or remove any public tree.”

The regulations also set criminal penalties for violators, who would face a misdemeanor charge, and if convicted “shall be punished by a fine not exceeding the International Society of Arborculture value of the tree, or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 90 days or both.” Restitution may also be required as determined by the Municipal Judge.

Councilor Frank Sweeney asked if charging someone under the city ordinance would preclude them from being prosecuted in Flathead District Court.

“Given recent history and occurrences in this Valley with the respect to removal of public trees, that matter is being pursued on a felony basis,” Sweeney said. “If something like that were to occur in the city, would it restrict what level of prosecution we could bring?”

City Attorney Angela Jacobs said someone who damages trees depending on the cost of the damage could be charged with a felony under state law.

“This doesn’t restrict our ability for someone who damages trees in the amount of say $30,000 or $40,000 that they be prosecuted criminally under the state statute,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs noted that the city created the ordinance as the result of a prior incident where someone uprooted a city tree while moving a house and then replanted the tree.

The new ordinance says that any person or property owner is prohibited from removing a public tree from the boulevard for the purpose of construction or any other reason without first getting written permission from the parks director. In addition, public trees that are removed must be replaced as deemed appropriate by the parks director, and the person removing the tree shall bear the cost of removal and replacement of all trees removed, unless the trees are removed at the request of the city.

It sets out protections for trees that are near excavation or construction work sites, noting that it is unlawful to excavate any ditches, tunnels, trenches or lay drive within a radius of 10 feet of any public tree without obtaining written permission from the parks director.

Those wanting to plant trees or new vegetation in the city boulevards need written permission from the Parks department prior to planting, and the city may require owners to remove any unauthorized vegetation.

Private trees must not interfere with the public right-of-way. Limbs or branches of a tree or shrub can’t extend over any public sidewalk at a height of less than seven feet, or 10 feet over a bike lane. The city will send a notice to property owners of violations, and the owner has two weeks to clear the right-of-way.

The city’s Tree Advisory Committee drafted the all-encompassing tree ordinance to provide better guidance to the public concerning city trees while working with the Parks and Recreation Department, city attorney and the Whitefish Lake Golf Club. The Park Board unanimously approved the ordinance.

In addition, a memorandum of understanding was created with the golf club that sets out the requirement that the club will notify the city of significant urban forestry projects on the course, which includes the removal of 20 or more trees at least 6 inches in diameter annually or one involving the removal of any healthy tree of 14 inches in diameter or larger. The club must also notify the city of any tree planting, and retain the use of an arborist for maintenance of trees.

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