What to do if a tree is down, and other Philly tree rules

What to do if a tree is down, and other Philly tree rules

As the effects of climate change become more evident in Philadelphia, the city has seen an increase in the number of storms affecting the region. With spring right around the corner, here is what to do if you need help with fallen trees or a neighbor’s overhanging branches.

If someone is hurt, or if a tree fell on top of a house, car, or other property, or if it’s blocking a road — call 911. Philadelphia Parks and Recreation will send a crew of arborists as soon as one is available. The crew will remove all or part of the tree if it poses an immediate risk to public safety, though it may leave tree trunks, stumps, and branches to be removed later. The city’s tree crews are on call around the clock for tree emergencies, so the wait shouldn’t be too long, but if a lot of trees are down, the crews may be handling a large number of requests.

Contact Philly311. This is the city’s line for non-emergency services, so this covers trees that have not fallen onto a person, house, or car, and aren’t blocking a path or touching electrical wires. They will figure out what city department can help you, and give you a case reference number. Although there are six ways to report a problem, you can only find out what’s happening with your case by calling 311, visiting the Philly311 website, or using the mobile app.

How to contact Philly311

  • 🌐 Submit a request on-lineor on Facebook or Twitter.
  • 📞 Call 311, Mon.-Fri. from 8am-8pm, excluding city holidays. If you are calling from outside Philly, call 215-686-8686.
  • ✉️ E-mail Philly311@phila.gov.
  • 📱 Philly311 app. There are apps for both iOS and Android; both apps have known issues, and the city does not know when they will be resolved.

Stay away from it and call Peco. If a branch falls on power lines or is near a power line and seems likely to fall, call Peco at 800-841-4141 (800-494-4000 for non-English speakers). A tree or branch falling on power lines is an emergency; if someone is hurt, you should also call 911. Peco can help only if the wires are electrical; if they belong to another utility, like telecom or cable, Peco won’t be able to help. Peco will cut, trim, and move trees or branches away from power lines; it is your responsibility to clean up afterwards, including clearing branches, logs, and any other debris left by the storm.

What to tell Peco about a fallen tree

  • Is the tree touching a power line or could it fall on a power line?
  • Is the power line between two poles, or between a pole and a home or building?
  • Is anything else about the situation dangerous, such as being close to a school, playground, body of water, or wildlife/livestock?

The city classifies trees into three categories: park, private, and street trees.

  • Park trees, and all trees on trails, near rec centers, playgrounds, etc. are the responsibility of parks and recreation, which takes care of planting, maintenance, and removal of all trees on park property.

  • Private trees are any trees in an alley, open lot, or front yard or back yard, whether or not the owner planted them. And they are the property owner’s — not the renter’s — responsibility to maintain. If you don’t, you can get a fine and/or the city will do it for you and send you the bill for maintenance or removal, plus administrative costs.

  • Street trees: All trees planted in sidewalks or the general public right-of-way (the space between the sidewalk and the curb or public planting strip) are the city’s jurisdiction. Philadelphia Parks and Recreation decides what kinds of trees to plant and is responsible for trimming and removing them. Don’t cut any part of a city tree without a permit.

You have to take care of trees on your property. Under the Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code, you are responsible for maintaining, repairing, or — in extreme cases — removing them.

This includes preventing branches from overhanging, and keeping a vigilant eye on whether or not your tree is near death or at risk of falling, and how it may affect your neighbors.

If you don’t know where to start, there’s help. The city’s TreePhilly program and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society have written and video resources on how to take care of your tree.

If a city inspector notices your tree branches intruding into your neighbor’s yard, or generally outside the limits of your property, you might get a notice of violation and a fine of $150 to $300. In most cases, you will have 30 days to fix the problem. If the tree is an imminent danger to someone’s health or safety, you may have to fix the problem immediately.

If your tree falls on private property (yours or someone else’s), it’s your responsibility as the owner to solve it.

If you don’t fix a problem, the city will do it for you. The city is authorized to prune and remove overhanging trees, even when they’re on private property. So, if you don’t take prompt action in emergency cases, or act within 30 days for non-emergencies, a crew will do it for you. And since it’s not the city’s job to take care of private trees, expect a bill for the service, plus administrative costs, on top of the fine. If you don’t pay, the city can file a lien against your property for the cost. And you are also liable for “any damage or injury to any person or property” caused while working to fix your violation.

If your tree is one of the 30 protected species — such as silver maple and white ash — you’re limited in what you can do, even if it’s on your property. Under the city’s Home Rule Charter, heritage trees can’t be removed from any property unless you get a special exception from the Zoning Board. To get that permission, a certified arborist needs to determine that the tree is dead, damaged, diseased, an “undesirable species” for its current location, a hazard to the public, or can be replaced by a tree of the same species in a new location.

The short answer: You. Whether it is your tree or a street tree, under the Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code, the property owner is responsible for the condition of the sidewalk. If the tree is on the sidewalk, you can’t cut it yourself — it’s not your property — but you are still responsible for fixing the sidewalk.

Call Philly311 or Parks and Recreation at 215-685-4363 or 215-685-4362. They will send someone to your sidewalk and assess the case, which can take between 7 and 10 days.

If the tree is healthy, the tree will stay, and you will have to pay to repair the sidewalk, being careful not to damage the roots.

If it’s unhealthy, the city might replace or remove the tree (which the city will pay for). You can either wait for the city to remove it (but it may take a while) or pay to have a Parks and Recreation-approved contractor do it, before fixing the sidewalk.

Do not call Parks and Recreation if you have a problem with a tree on a neighbor’s property; they won’t be able to help you. The city advises you to talk to your neighbor first, and if that doesn’t work, seek legal counsel if the neighbor’s property has caused damage to yours.

If the problem is an overhanging branch, chances are that during a city inspection, your neighbor will get a fine and be forced to address the infraction.

Until then, try to talk to them before cutting anything. Legally, you are allowed to trim a branch of your neighbor’s tree that’s invading your property. But it can get complicated. In Philadelphia, unless you and the neighbor agree otherwise, you have to pay the cost of pruning. Plus, you need a certified arborist to determine if it’s a heritage tree to avoid getting in trouble. And whatever you cut has to be exclusively on your side of the fence. Neither you, nor any arborist, can set foot on your neighbor’s property without permission. And if you damage their tree or any of their property in the process, you can be liable.

Parks and Recreation takes care of the planting, pruning, and removal of all street and park trees, through its Urban Forestry Street Tree Management unit.

If a street tree in your neighborhood needs to be pruned or removed, they are the best to call. They work with contracted arborists to determine the condition of a tree. Remember: They will not remove a healthy street tree or any tree that isn’t considered a hazard.

To get help for a street tree, you can call 215-685-4363 or 215-685-4362. But be patient: According to their website, it will take between 7 and 10 working days for them to send someone to assess the problem.

If you’re a homeowner or a renter, you can report a hazardous street tree, or request free pruning, tree removal, and stump removal for a street tree next to your house by filling out the dead tree form or the maintenance form online.