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Tree Maintenance and Removal

The City of Auburn is committed to recognizing and protecting the environment in our region.  The Pacific Northwest has a rich history deeply rooted in our forests and trees. We take great pride in preserving the environment in which we live, work, and play. As such, there are several regulations pertaining to tree maintenance and removal within the City of Auburn.  

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This webpage provides assistance in summarizing those regulations. Most often only City regulations apply, but in certain limited circumstances State regulations may also apply. The information here, focuses on the City’s regulations that apply to property within the City limits. 

Whether or not a City permit or approval is required to conduct tree maintenance or removal depends on the tree’s location, ownership, and purpose of the tree. It is important to read each of the various scenarios to determine which fits your particular circumstances.  

Tree Maintenance and Removal on Private Property and Subdivision Common Areas

Private property – The property owner where the majority of a tree trunk is located owns the tree and is responsible for the tree and its maintenance; even if the tree trunk is located on one property but the canopy and branches are overhanging another property.   

Tree on private property imageIf the tree owner chooses to cut a tree down that crosses multiple properties, they are responsible for ensuring that the removal is conducted without damaging neighboring property. This may include getting permission in advance to enter another property if needed to perform the tree removal or associated clean up. Alternatively, your neighbor may express concern that a tree located on your property has branches that cross their property and that they fear those limbs may fall resulting in damage or injury. The City considers this a civil matter between the two private property owners and will not intervene.  It is recommended that you speak directly with the property owner to coordinate any actions. And, if the tree is on your property, be sure to be a good neighbor and ensure that any trees, shrubs, and other vegetation is regularly and appropriately maintained. 

In matters between two private property owners, the City cannot get involved in the determination of the health of a tree and the appropriate actions should be undertaken by either property owner, unless:
  • The tree is also part of a critical area (See the discussion of “Critical Areas”, below); or
  • It is the subject of some past City development approval process, such as part of an approved landscape plan; or
  • More than six (6) trees per acre are proposed to be cut down; in which case a grading permit must be obtained to cut down more than six trees per acre.

Maintenance and removal of a tree on private property may need approval when the tree is the subject of some past development approval process, such as part of an approved landscape or mitigation plan (see the discussion of “Critical Areas”, below) that was a requirement in order to originally develop the property. It is likely that the City will require the lost vegetation be replaced.

Subdivision Common Area – Many residential subdivisions establish special purpose lots that are identified as common areas that are either dedicated to the City or to a HOA. Common areas can take the form of a playground, vegetated open space, or a stormwater management pond. Approval of the original construction of the subdivision is often conditioned to require that landscaping be installed or that existing native vegetation be retained within these common areas by permanent City easement.  If you are unsure whether the common area within your subdivision is owned and maintained by the HOA, you may contact either your HOA or the City for clarification. 

Maintenance and removal of a tree within a common area that is subject to an easement or past approval of a landscape or mitigation plan (See the discussion of “Critical Areas”, below) requires a written request submitted to the City for approval in advance of the activity occurring. You should also consult with your HOA because they may have the maintenance responsibility for such areas and the responsibility for any violations of tree retention on the property. 

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Tree Maintenance and Removal on Public Property

Street trees – “Street trees” as that term is most commonly used, refers to trees that are located within City right-of-way (ROW) along City streets. These trees are generally installed as part of a developer’s responsibility to construct street improvements necessitated by theStreet trees downtown Auburn image development, or when the City undertakes a road improvement project. Street trees help enhance the aesthetic character of the City, provide separation for safety, screening of views, reducing noise and air pollution, and reducing storm water runoff. These street trees are generally (but not always) located between a sidewalk and the street or within “tree grates” in the sidewalk (See Photo to the right).  

Since most often these trees are located within City ROW, the City has maintenance responsibility for the trees except in very few instances where the maintenance responsibility has been specifically given to others, such as through a recorded easement.  

Where the City retains maintenance responsibility, the City must review and approve tree removal and major pruning proposals by others prior to undertaking any actions. Not only does tree removal on this public property require City review and approval, the City may even perform the work to remove the tree. This is especially true for trees that are verified as dying, diseased, have dangerous limbs, or have root systems that are damaging private property or utility lines.  The ability of City work crews to perform work on a tree is limited by available resources so requesting City permission to perform the work yourself, may allow the work to happen more quickly. In no event, however, can work be performed in the City ROW without a Construction Permit

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Tree Maintenance and Removal within Critical Areas

Critical areas – Critical areas are environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands, streams, floodplains, riparian habitat zones, steep slopes, and their protective buffers. Trees perform important functions within these areas from providing wildlife habitat to retaining and holding soil by the root systems that help keep slopes from sliding.  

Wetland ImageTrees located within a critical area were most likely planted or retained as part of an approved mitigation plan that was a requirement in order to allow the original development of the property. The mitigation plan is intended to compensate the loss of the critical area or to protect the critical area from the allowed disturbance.  

Any alteration of vegetation (including tree maintenance and removal) within these critical areas first requires submittal of a written request and review and approval by the City. Removal of vegetation, such as a tree, generally requires preparation of a revised mitigation plan that must first be reviewed and approved by the City. It is likely that the City will require replacement of the vegetation being removed.

When considering whether a tree may be removed from a critical area, the City will establish requirements for how the tree removal operation occurs such as avoiding heavy equipment, minimizing disturbance of other vegetation, etc. Most likely the City will establish a mitigation requirement, such as replacing the removed tree in a nearby location.  

Proper Tree Maintenance

Proper tree maintenance is necessary and any work on your trees should be coordinated with a certified arborist. You can search for an arborist by visiting Pacific Northwest International Society of Arborists. In no event should a tree be “topped” which essentially results in the slow death of the tree. More information is available from the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on tree topping. Sometimes a tree company may also suggest “windsail reduction” or “crown thinning” for conifer trees (trees that produce cones), however, research has shown this type of trimming is detrimental to the health of the tree. More information on windsailing, crown thinning, and crown cleaning can be found on the DNR Tree Link article “Windsail Reduction’ - a Northwest Controversy”. 

Questions to Consider for Tree Maintenance and Removal

When considering tree maintenance or removal, the following statements will help you determine whether you need City approval: 
  1. The tree is not located inside a critical area or its buffer subject to City regulation.
  2. The tree is not located within a City right-of-way.
  3. The tree is not located on another’s private property, within a common area, or within public property.
  4. The tree was not required as part of an approved landscaping plan.
  5. The tree was not required as part of an approved mitigation plan.
  6. More than six (6) trees will be removed. 

If you answered “yes” to each statement, then you may remove the tree without the need to obtain a City permit. Further, Auburn City Code 15.74.050 (A)(4) allows for properties up to an acre in size to remove up to 6 trees within a 12-month period without obtaining a permit. And if the property is more than an acre in size, you are allowed to remove up to 6 trees per acre within a 12-month period. 

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Need Assistance?

If you have questions, City of Auburn Planning Services staff are an excellent resource to help answer questions. We can be reached via email or 253-931-3090. Please put the nature of your inquiry in the subject line, and include the parcel number or address of the site (if applicable) and your contact information in the email.

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