Portsmouth wants hazardous trees trimmed


PORTSMOUTH — If you’ve got a tree with branches that overhang public property, you might want to get out those pruners.

A proposed ordinance places the responsibility of trimming or removing trees that pose a potential danger to the public squarely on the owner of the property where the tree is located.

The proposed Private Hazardous Tree ordinance is scheduled to be the topic of a public hearing at the Town Council’s July 14 meeting.

Scott D. Wheeler, chairman of the town’s Tree Commission, said the ordinance is needed to give the town some leverage when it comes to hazardous trees — a real problem nationwide.

“There are tragic stories around the country of people being killed by falling, dead trees,” said Mr. Wheeler, a certified arborist who’s also the tree warden for the City of Newport.

The existing tree ordinance, however, has no safeguards to deal with such issues, he said.

“It’s really about public safety. This was something that’s clearly lacking (in Portsmouth),” he said. “As it stands today, there’s really little the town can do to mitigate that hazard. It’s just a tool that the DPW director, with some input with the tree warden, can use to improve traffic safety.”

Under the proposed ordinance, which addresses only public rights of way and not “backyard disputes,” said Mr. Wheeler, homeowners must prune their trees so they will not obstruct pedestrians on sidewalks or block traffic signs or streets and intersections for both drivers or those on foot.

The overhanging portion of any tree should be at least eight feet above the road shoulder and sidewalks, and 14 feet over streets. The minimum clearance is also under the discretion of the director of the Department of Public Works (DPW), according to the ordinance.

If a homeowner fails to prune or remove a hazardous tree, the DPW director will submit a written order that the work must be done within 30 days. If the hazard still exists after 30 days, the town can, after consulting with the tree warden, to remove the tree at the homeowner’s expense.

The property owner will also have the option of going to municipal court if they’re issued a violation, Mr. Wheeler said.

Based on his experience, most people fix the problem as soon as they’re made aware of it, he said. “They’re conscientious. Once they’re notified, people take public safety seriously,” he said.

Problem areas

The ordinance is needed in Portsmouth, which has plenty of dead or dying trees, or those that hang low over public ways, he said.

“Bristol Ferry Road is one of the scariest roads,” said Mr. Wheeler, who said the street has a few dead sycamore maples that need attention, as well as a “huge evergreen.” West Main Road also has problem areas, including a dead, 90-foot pine that leans out into the roadway, he said.

“It’s very concerning the number of dead and dying trees along our roadsides,” said Mr. Wheeler. “Approximately 75 percent of the trees that endanger the public are public trees. If the town doesn’t have any authority to impact trees on public rights of ways, the town is at risk.”

It’s only right that property owners maintain their own vegetation, he said.

“If we relay on the Public Works crew to trim every street vine… it’s just not going to be done.”


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.