Missoula is updating two urban tree ordinances, including adding clarifications to who is responsible for maintenance, protection and replacement of public trees in boulevards.
Chris Boza, the city forester, said the ordinance involving boulevards dates to 1980, with only a couple of minor changes since then. The other ordinance, which is the city’s comprehensive tree and shrub ordinance, “is only 22 years old,” Boza said.
“These ordinances affect everyone, including renters, property owners, developers and home builders. We’re seeking to clarify how boulevards should be maintained, what types of vegetation may be planted and where, and how boulevards can best be developed to create safe, welcoming streets and sidewalks. Most importantly, the proposed regulations will set us on a path to renew and revitalize our aging urban forest,” Boza said in a press release.
He told the Missoulian the two ordinances have some overlap, too.
“We’re bringing them up to date and making things clearer so that the average lay person can read them and understand them,” Boza said.
Missoula’s urban forest is valued at $103 million, according to Boza, and is an integral part of Missoula. The trees absorb carbon dioxide; cast shade to reduce heat islands and air conditioning use; divert precipitation and reduce stormwater flow on city streets; increase property values; provide wildlife habitat; and stabilize the soil with their root systems.
Boza noted that the two ordinances being updated aren’t consistent with whether it’s the property owners' responsibility in all cases to manage the boulevard trees or whether the city “may” be involved — and that may need to be clarified.
But as in the previous ordinances and urban forest management plans, property owners aren’t allowed to remove boulevard trees just because they’re a nuisance. A person still needs to get approval from the city to remove trees, and the new ordinances will make it clearer but not necessarily easier. That clarity is based in large part on the reorganization and rewriting of the tree and shrub ordinance, which now is written in more of a sequential fashion.
“You start out now with the basic administrative items, then go to the regulatory portion and finish with the enforcement aspects of it,” Boza said.
One Missoula homeowner is concerned that the ordinances will put further restrictions on her ability to manage city-owned trees on the city-owned boulevards that affect her adjacent private property and home. She wants to elevate private property owners’ rights over those of the urban trees.
In a letter to the Missoula City Council, Mary Downey wrote that the 80-year-old non-native maple trees in the boulevards in her University neighborhood have large, extensive root systems that are damaging the urban area.
“As a homeowner in the University area for over 45 years, I have redone my sidewalks twice, repaired the foundation of my home, suffered tree limbs falling on vehicles, tried to mow my lawn over rising roots and presently have new sidewalks invaded by tree roots. In the past, I have begged the city to prune the trees to no avail,” Downey wrote. “I now have a water line that has been invaded by the roots of a maple tree. I cannot repair that water line because the urban forester prevents my excavator from digging near the old (dying) tree.”
Downey wasn’t able to be reached for comment. But in her letter, Downey added that she was told by Boza that she can’t repair the existing water line, and needs to put in a new one from the street to her home at her own expense.
She's proposing her own revisions to one of the ordinances, which would give property owners more of a voice in what happens to the boulevard trees and the city’s urban forest. In particular, Downey wrote that the emphasis shouldn’t be on tree preservation, but on a “balance of need.” She also wants the city to bear the cost of tree removal in boulevards if it’s done to protect the public or property owner, rather than the owner of the abutting property having to pay for it.
Boza said most of Downey’s concerns are addressed in the current ordinances and in the urban forest management plan, but some are clarified in the proposed updates. For example, if a tree is dead, dying or structurally unsound, the city may take care of its removal.
“Structurally unsound is new. One item identified in the Urban Forest Management Plan of 2015 is the necessity to define the ground or justification to remove a tree,” Boza said.
But he cautioned against calling trees a hazard, since they are living organisms that contribute to the earth and the citizens’ well-being.
“One of the big changes with the existing ordinance written in 1997 and the 2019 one is the industry, risk managers and insurance companies now look at things in terms of risk,” Boza said. “There is a process you go through to make that determination. Every tree is a living organism, just like every person is a living organism that responds to stress differently. So every tree is a hazard, but every tree isn’t a risk. That’s why the draft ordinance is not to look at trees in terms of being a hazard, but as a risk.”
For people like Downey, who don’t agree with Boza’s assessment of managing the trees adjacent to property, the ordinance notes that they can appeal to the City Tree Board.
The ordinances also clarify the need for arborists or similar professionals, whose credentials must be on file with the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department, to be used anytime work is done on trees in the boulevards.
In addition, one ordinance formalizes the steps that must be taken by companies like NorthWestern Energy, who recently removed Norway maples near Caffé Dolce that were interfering with overhead power lines.
“It was more or less a handshake deal that they would do certain things, and this codifies that,” Boza said.
They’ve also added language that planting trees by developers needs to be consistent with city zoning ordinances, and clarified that when trees are removed they need to be replaced.
“We want no net losses of urban trees,” Boza said. “Most property owners don’t even realize they have a responsibility to maintain adjacent boulevards. We’re working together with citizens to streamline these regulations and make them clear and consistent across the board.”