Tree Guide

Guide to Tree Trimming & Tree Damage
Quite often, the responsibility for tree trimming or tree damage can cause misunderstandings between neighbors, between residents and the City and between the public and utility companies. The purpose of this guide is to outline tree-related responsibilities, as owning a tree involves certain duties so that it does not become a liability or nuisance.

Public Shade Tree Law (Mass. General Laws, Chapter 87)
  • All trees within a public way or on its boundaries are public shade trees. Each public way consists of the paved surface you see and between 5-10 feet to either side of the pavement that is owned and controlled by the City.
  • Public shade trees shall not be cut, trimmed or removed by any person other than the Tree Warden or his deputies, except upon a permit in writing from the Tree Warden after a hearing. If someone objects in writing to the cutting or removal of a tree at or before a hearing, it may not be removed unless cutting or removal is also approved by the mayor.
  • Tree Wardens and their deputies, but no other person, may without a hearing trim, cut down, or remove trees, less than one and one half inches in diameter in the public way and any other trees ordered by the mayor that obstruct or endanger the public.
  • No tree shall be planted in the public way without the approval of the Tree Warden.
  • Anyone who attaches to a tree a notice, sign, advertisement or other thing, or cuts, paints or marks such tree, except for the purpose of protecting it or the public under a written permit shall be punished by a fine of not more than $50.
Scenic Road Act (Mass. General Laws, Chapter 40, Section 15C)
Any repair, maintenance, reconstruction or paving of a scenic road shall not involve the cutting of trees or the partial or complete destruction of stone walls without the prior written consent of the Planning Board and Tree Warden after a public hearing. Designated scenic roads in Fitchburg are Mt. Elam Road, Pearl Hill Road, Williams Road, Caswell Road and Rindge Road (from John Fitch Highway to North Street).

Tree Ownership

If the main trunk of a tree is entirely on your property, it is your tree whether you planted it, a previous owner planted it, or nature put it there. Boundary trees are those with any part of the trunk on more than one property, so ownership is shared. Neither owner can remove the tree without consent of the other. If you are not sure of the boundary between your property and the City’s, contact the DPW Engineering Division. If you believe a city tree needs to be removed or trimmed, contact the Tree Warden by calling the Department of Public works at 978-829-1900. The Tree Warden will evaluate the tree to determine if it needs to be removed or trimmed.

The liability for wrongfully cutting down someone’s tree can be great, as the law provides that the tree owner shall be awarded three times the assessed damages (Mass. General Laws Chapter 242, Section 7). However, if the defendant had good reason to believe that the land was his own or that he was lawfully authorized to remove the tree, he is liable for single damages. Neighbors having a dispute about cutting down a tree should attempt to resolve it amicably but if they cannot do so, they can file a case in the Worcester County Housing Court to ask the court to decide the issue.

An illustration of a tree labeled with different items and terms
Utility Lines
A public utility has the right to remove or trim your tree if it interferes with the necessary and reasonable operation of the utility. Furthermore, the utility is required to perform tree trimming as part of its program to maintain reliable service for its customers. The National Electric Safety Code requires utilities to trim or remove trees growing near power lines that threaten to disrupt service. Proper and regular tree trimming helps prevent the danger and inconvenience of outages.
City Trees
The city will cut, trim or remove trees which are actually in a public way or which interfere, or threaten to interfere with, the reasonable use of a city maintained public way. For example, the city will consider removing: the limb of a tree protruding at low level over the road, a loose and rotten tree root; obstructions overhanging the road and objects that may fall on or in the way; a decayed or rotten tree limb. The city will cut trees which are on the city’s land but only to the same extent that a private owner would have to do so. As an example, if a tree is diseased or likely to fall or create a nuisance on adjacent private property, the city will remove or trim that tree. The city will not repair or remove trees from private roads or paper streets.

If branches of your tree extend into your neighbor’s property, the neighbor has the right to trim your tree to the property line, but he cannot unduly harm the tree in doing so.

If a City tree has branches that extend into your property, you can trim the tree to the property line, provided that you do not unduly harm the tree.

Damage from Trees
If you are aware of defective conditions in your tree and it causes damage, injury or death on your neighbor’s property (as well as on your own property), you are liable. In particular, tree owners have been found liable for damage caused by diseased trees.

If damage, injury or death due to your tree is caused strictly by an Act of God, you are not responsible. However, if the injury could have been prevented by reasonable diligence or ordinary care, you will not be entitled to the Act of God defense and you would be liable.

Similarly, if a City tree causes damage to your property and the City could have prevented the damage by exercising reasonable care, the City is liable. However, the City would not be liable if the damage were caused strictly by an Act of God.

Litter from Trees
Leaves, twigs and small branches are considered natural, general nuisance and no particular party owns them, and you are not expected to pick up after your tree. Fruit belongs to you as long as it is on your tree, but it can be claimed by your neighbor if it falls on his property.
  • Power Corridors - Tree trimming along transmission lines and along power lines from pole-to-pole (primary circuits and secondary circuits) is the responsibility of Unitil. Unitil’s clearance diagrams are shown below. Contact Unitil if you believe your tree is creating a hazard to power lines.
  • Service Lines, Pole to your meter - It is your responsibility to keep trees clear of the electric service line that runs from the pole to your house. Unitil will not trim electric house services unless there is obvious wear or hard contact on the wires. All house service tree trimming concerns are reviewed by a Unitil representative, and if they find conditions as mentioned they will have their contractor do the trimming. If you or your tree trimming contractor are planning to trim near power lines, Unitil will turn off the electric service and reconnect the service for free, once the job is done.
  • Working Near Power Lines - Do not attempt to trim trees near power lines, as you could put yourself in serious danger. This work can be done by a qualified tree contractor who employs workers trained to work within 10 feet of electrical hazards. Before hiring a contractor, verify that he is qualified for this type of work.
  • Communication Utilities - Unitil will perform regular maintenance trimming for communications utilities (Verizon and Comcast) when they share the same pole as Unitil. If Unitil is notified of trees or limbs on lines belonging to Verizon or Comcast, Unitil will notify them. Verizon or Comcast will clear their lines of limbs and trees below Unitil’s low voltage wires.
  • Planting a Tree? - The National Arbor Day Foundation encourages planning your trees. With a little research and a simple layout, you can produce a landscape that will cool your home in summer and tame the winter winds. Your well-planned yard will contain trees that grow well in the soil and moisture of your neighborhood. Your trees will be properly placed to avoid collisions with power lines and buildings, and the aesthetics will increase your property value.
An illustration of minimum clearance zone dimensions
An illustration of utility lines