Do I need a permit to remove a tree?

Does tree removal require a permit?

This is a question that quite honestly had not occurred to me before I got into tree removal work. I would have assumed that a property owner’s property rights would extend to landscaping and trees planted on their property (I was aware of HOA’s and deed-restricted communities often having stricter rules, but I thought, by and large, that the rest of us were free to do as we wish). I was WRONG! Luckily for me, I learned this fact before I started removing trees. My company, Tree Wise Guys, services Manatee and the East half of Hillsborough Counties, so I can only answer this question if you live in our service area. This is because permitting is done at your most local level of government, and rules vary from one locale to the next. So if you live in unincorporated Hillsborough County, there is one set of criteria determining whether or not you need a permit to remove a tree. If you live in Plant City, Tampa, or Temple Terrace, you will fall under the guidelines set forth by your city. If you live in unincorporated Manatee County, Manatee County’s rules apply, and if within Bradenton city limits- you guessed it- Bradenton’s rules. If your neighborhood has an HOA, talk with your HOA board before planning any tree removals; your HOA’s rules will take precedence. Also, if in an HOA community, the trees in common areas- street trees included- belong to the HOA and fall under different rules than the ones in your yard- you should leave those alone, and let the HOA handle those.

Tree Removal Permit Criteria

Although each locale has some slight variations on permit guidelines based on what that community’s representatives feel are their community’s priorities, there are definitely some common themes that run throughout every jurisdiction. Because this is a generalization of common points, do not rely on what is written here to make a decision on whether or not you need a permit. Unless you hire Tree Wise Guys for your tree removal project, permit compliance falls on you. I am not offering legal advice here, only explaining some general concepts to help you understand your local rules when you research them. Below are the main criteria that are relevant to permits for tree removals in the geography previously described.

Tree Species as it relates to needing a permit to remove a tree

The species or genus of a tree can be a prime factor in whether or not a tree may be removed without a permit. Each jurisdiction generally has a list of tree species which do not require a permit. These are often invasive exotics, and non-native. However, that being said, not each jurisdiction has the same list. For example, in Tampa city limits, you do not need a permit to remove a Carrotwood tree, as they are classified as an invasive exotic. In unincorporated Hillsborough County, though, that species is conspicuously absent from the list they have published online. I was told they are currently updating that list when I brought this to someone’s attention in the permitting department. We will have to wait and see if they add this species to the updated list of trees not requiring a permit, but for now, it depends on the size. Brazilian Pepper is almost universally listed as okay to remove with no permit, as it is also a terribly invasive exotic- but again, check the list for your jurisdiction. Furthermore, these guidelines only apply to residential and small commercial properties; if you were, say, going to clear Brazilian Pepper from a 10-acre parcel in Manatee County, a permit would be required (but no fee charged) because they want to ensure that you have a plan in place to deal with erosion, once the invasives are removed. Again, a little research goes a long way to protecting you from getting in trouble with the local authorities.

How the Health of a Tree Affects the Need for a Permit to Remove

Generally, dead trees do not require a permit to be removed, but it is highly advisable that you take plenty of pictures first to prove it was dead, before having it removed. Also remember that even here in Central Florida, some species of trees shed their leaves for a period during the winter, so take your pictures at some other time of year, and make sure your camera is set to put a date stamp on the picture. Alternatively, your chosen tree removal service should also be documenting the state of the tree, and should share a detailed report with you when complete, including proof that the tree was dead. This way, if anyone questions you later, you will have photographic proof that the tree was in fact dead. All this being said, once the tree is removed, you may be required to replace it to keep your yard in compliance with your jurisdiction’s landscape ordinances pertaining to trees. Here again, if you live in a community with an HOA, their rules will govern, otherwise your city or county, whichever is relevant.

A sick or declining tree may be removed without a permit in some jurisdictions, although there are different requirements for proof- from you simply taking pictures in case you are questioned later, to you needing to file a permit, whereupon the city or county will send a certified arborist out to assess your tree and determine if it can be saved or not, at which point your permit may either be approved or denied. The arborist should also be making a determination as to why your tree is dying; if it is a palm tree infected with lethal yellowing or lethal bronzing, I am sure that your permit would be approved immediately, and you would be encouraged to remove the tree post-haste.

Location of the Tree affects the Need for a Permit to Remove

The location of the tree can be both the reason why you want to remove it, and a major factor on whether or not you need a permit to do so. Generally speaking, there is more latitude given for trees in your side yard or back yard, and less forgiving rules for trees planted along your front yard as street trees (if you live on a corner lot, trees on both the front and street-side may be considered street trees). Generally street trees are large-form trees such as oaks, are required for the benefit of the community (shading the road is a common, and worthy, goal). Typically, removal will require a permit, and a replacement is generally also required unless you have enough trees remaining to meet the requirements for street trees. If the tree is on a property line, though- say half the trunk diameter is on your side of the line, and half on the other- or maybe the exact percentage is not clear- I HIGHLY recommend you get your adjoining neighbor’s support in whatever you plan to do with the tree, whether it’s removal or pruning. If you want to remove the tree, and they don’t, and the “whose tree is it anyway?” question is not obvious, you could be creating more problems than you are solving. Unfortunately, people have a very, very bad habit of planting trees right on the property line- a practice that I strongly discourage. If you are going to remove a tree on a property line, don’t just get your neighbor’s verbal agreement. Have them also sign off on the work order with your tree removal company, and possibly (preferably) have them pay part of the bill. This will help protect you against any future claims of removing the tree without their agreement. (Again, I am not an attorney, so if this is something that might become a sticky issue for you, it might be prudent to seek legal advise from an attorney before proceeding with your tree removal. A tree removal company is not going to know where the property line is, and will likely take your word for it- please do them a favor, and do not get them involved in a legal hassle that they did not see coming)

How Size of the tree affects whether you need permit to remove a tree

Sorry, guys- but in this case, size DOES matter. Most locales have a size limit that goes in conjunction with the location of the tree. For example, it is fairly common that if your tree is under 5 inches in diameter at 4 1/2 feet off the ground (breast height; DBH is shorthand for Diameter at Breast Height), and it’ s in your side or back yard, you may not need a permit to remove it, but you may need to replace it with a suitable substitute. Different size criteria generally apply to trees in the front of your house. If I could give new home owners one piece of advice, it would be this: As soon as you are done unpacking, take a look at your trees. Note their species and understand their growth habit. What will they look like 10 years from now, or 20 years? Will they become a problem? Trees grow fast here, and an oak tree planted close to the house may give pleasant shade in the short-term, but in the long term will start to create a lot of headaches- leaves constantly clogging the gutters, dead branches falling on the house, expensive pruning jobs to remove limbs that hang over the house, or even run up against it. It is fairly easy to move a small tree when it’s young, but put it off an you will have bigger problems to deal with. All too often I see oak trees planted way to close to houses or other trees. While you can get approval to move an oak tree when it is young, if you let it grow to a certain size where it is considered a “grand oak”, the rules change dramatically- and not for the benefit of the homeowner.

What is a Grand Oak, and Why Do I need a permit to remove one?

A grand oak is simply any oak tree, of any species, that has grown to a large size. The exact criteria can vary a little by jurisdiction, but one thing that holds true in all jurisdictions covered by this article is this: not only will you need a permit to remove it, but you will need an ISA certified arborist to inspect the tree and declare that it poses a danger. While this may sound reasonable and actionable enough, the words “danger” or “dangerous” are words that were deliberately removed from ANSI language several years ago because of their subjectivity, as were the words “hazard” and “hazardous”. Tree risk assessments now use the word “Risk”. We try to consider the risk potential of failure at different points of a tree, be it branches, large forking limbs, or possibly the entire tree if there are indications of root damage or decay. In addition to making an educated guess at the probability of failure of different parts of the tree, we look at targets- what might that tree, or parts of that tree, strike if it were to fail? How valuable are those targets? Are they moveable? Are they inhabited, and if so, how often? Anyway, a tree risk assessment is a relatively complex process, but since it does not align well with the terminology of declaring a tree “dangerous”, the whole decision becomes subjective. I’ll give you an example to illustrate: I’ve looked at oak trees that would be classified as “grand oaks”. I can see clear evidence of decay in the trunk, and weak branch attachment of heavy limbs not far off the ground. One or more of those limbs, if it failed, would fall on a house. In talking with the homeowner, I might determine that the portion of the house that would be struck in the event of a failure is only occupied 20% of the time. I might be nearly 100% sure that this tree will fail at this point on the trunk at some time- but there is no way I can predict when. It could fail 15 minutes after I leave, like the near-miss of my son, or it could stand there looking good for another 50 years. It’s more likely to fail during a storm, but obviously I cannot predict when the next hurricane is going to hit here- not even the National Hurricane Center can do that. So in the end, arborists are put into an uncomfortable situation- call it wrong, and somebody could get hurt or killed. Call it wrong the other way, and get accused of removing a healthy grand oak, and risk being fined out of business. There is currently ongoing debate between the state, where the bill meant to help homeowners by making it illegal for local jurisdictions to charge a permit fee for the removal of a dangerous tree, and local jurisdictions that jumped on the unintentionally vague language of “dangerous” to make it even harder to get a permit approved. So, if you want to be smart about your trees, and avoid the legal red tape later, manage your trees while they are still young,. Consult with an arborist who can help you identify your trees and give you a good idea on what they will do in the future- will they get too big for the space? Will their roots lift the pavers of your nice driveway, or your sidewalk, etc.? Will the limbs grow out over your house? Is there a better choice of tree that could be put there instead, or can the current tree be managed in a way as to not cause these problems later? If you plan ahead, and act early, you can head off a lot of problems early enough that you may not need to pull a permit, you can make better decisions on tree selection than whatever was put in by the builder, and you can enjoy your home’s landscape for years to come. If you would like a free * consultation on your trees and help planning for a headache-free future. contact Tree Wise Guys today.

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*For consultations involving landscape and tree planning, future modelling, recommendations for tree selection and site placement, Tree Wise Guys charges $50 per hour, minimum one hour. We will then issue you a gift certificate or credit for future services by us in the same amount, making the consultation free. This credit can be used with or without our 10% discount for active or former military service members and first responders, and their immediate family members.

If you prefer to call and talk to the owner directly, my number is 863-864-9396. Please leave a message if I don’t answer; sometimes I’m in a tree or running equipment and not able to answer the phone. I will call you back as soon as I can.