Enhanced Tree Protections


On Monday night, the Cambridge City Council voted to enact enhancements to our tree protection ordinance which will help decrease the loss to our tree canopy, and safeguard the valuable work that our Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force is doing until they come out with their formal recommendations in a few months. Until they do, the ordinance is applicable for up to one year, or until the recommendations of the Task Force are enacted, whichever comes first. You may be hearing about a tree “moratorium”, and even though this ordinance is designed to slow down tree-cutting to mitigate the negative affects of climate change, “moratorium” is not exactly the correct word. There are still avenues for property owners to remove trees over the next year, especially when trees are dead, dying, dangerous, or are negatively impacting their immediate surroundings. 

Under the updated ordinance, property owners may not remove a “significant tree” from their property, unless otherwise approved through a permitting process, and no permits shall be issued for one year. A “significant tree” is any tree that is 8″ in diameter or more at breast height (DBH). These trees are usually taken down by certified arborists and landscapers, as individual property owners seldom have the experience or tools to remove them on their own. Landscapers operating in the City of Cambridge are already being contacted by DPW, and will be made aware of the ordinance and proper permitting procedures so that they can advise their clients about the removal of significant trees. 


There are exceptions to the prohibition on removing significant trees from a property over the next year:

-Dead/dying trees: an independent arborist can certify that a tree has died or is dying and is a candidate for removal. They will need to complete a certification form after an inspection, which is standard procedure for an arborist. The “ISA Basic Tree Risk Assessment” form can be found here

-Dangerous trees: an independent arborist can certify that the condition of a tree makes it dangerous to its surroundings, such as trees with branches that are entangled in power lines, or trees with diseases that could spread. They will fill out the same ISA form (see above) which is also standard procedure.

 -Trees that “pose significant negative impacts to an existing adjacent structure”: the intent of this ordinance is to prohibit developers from removing large amounts of significant trees from our canopy, but existing homes shouldn’t be threatened by dangerous trees. This amendment allows homeowners to prevent potential damage to their homes, that dangerous trees could cause such as trees with roots growing into foundations, by making an exception for their removal after being approved by an arborist. 

 -Overly dense canopy: in areas where several trees are tightly packed together, removing trees may be beneficial to the health of the entire canopy. Removing these trees would be allowed after inspection by a certified arborist. 

-Emergency removal: if a permit cannot be applied for beforehand because of an emergency situation, residents can apply for relief from the ordinance after the fact. One member of the public who spoke at Monday’s meeting shared that she had taken down already precarious trees in her yard ahead of the dangerously high winds that week. Had the ordinance been in affect at this time, she could have still taken down the trees and applied to the City for emergency relief.

Other exemptions to this ordinance include: city park projects, all projects over 25,000 sq. ft. that have already been granted permits to move forward and 100% affordable housing projects, regardless of size. 


Because it takes decades for a significant tree to take formation and thrive, the City will levy financial penalties for violating this updated ordinance. If a significant tree is removed in violation of this updated ordinance, the replacement fee is the equivalent of “purchasing, planting, watering, and maintaining” the replacement tree for at least five years. For projects over 25,000 sq. ft under the current ordinance, that fee is approximately $800-$1,000 per inch diameter at breast height (DBH). These projects are being undertaken by typically large, commercial developers who have deeper pockets than a Cambridge homeowner and can afford to pay a fine of $8,000-$10,000 per tree into the City’s tree fund. I advocated strongly that the penalty for private owners would be far less. For those who qualify for a City of Cambridge residential tax exemption, the fee will be only 10% of the previously mentioned sums. There will be no fee for property owners who are on financial assistance. In addition to the fine to replace the tree, a resident who removes a significant tree in violation of the updated ordinance will owe a payment of no more than $300 per day until the fine is paid. All fines levied will go back into the City’s tree fund for the express purpose of increasing city owned trees to protect and grow the tree canopy in Cambridge.

This ordinance takes effect on March 11, 2019, and the DPW is hard at work to inform property owners of its requirements. If you’ve found this post helpful, please share it with friends and neighbors, and reach out to my office at (617) 349-4263 or amallon@cambridgema.gov with any questions.