Unapproved Tree Work Carries a Risk of Civil Penalties
The Pacific Northwest was built in large part on the back of a booming logging industry. Since those early days, the region is known for dense, wild forest lands and progressive forest management. The States of Washington and Oregon take trees very seriously. You may be aware of state laws that severely punish those who cut down trees without permission on the land of another. For example, ORS 105.810 and RCW 64.12.030 allow for triple damages against someone held liable for "timber trespass."
However, you may not be aware that, beyond the severe penalties in state law, many municipalities have tree removal ordinances which, if violated, carry civil enforcement penalties that can add up to tens of thousands of dollars.
One of the reasons to be aware of these potential penalties from a community association perspective, is that most associations are required to maintain, repair, and replace common area property. In circumstances when that obligation extends to landscaping and trees, there are steps the board of directors can take to avoid exposing the association to liability.
First, have a landscaping maintenance plan that includes regular visual inspections. "Regular" can be monthly, quarterly, bi-annually, or whatever makes sense for your community. Even if the landscaping work is infrequent, keeping an eye on the trees in the community is good practice to ensure (a) they are still there and no one has cut them down without permission, (b) they are not in danger of falling over or shedding large limbs that can injure community members, and (c) they are not infringing on power lines or other areas that can impact the whole community.
Second, if maintenance is required beyond simple trimming, as determined by the association's landscaping contractor (ideally) or the board of directors (after reviewing evidence), take extra precaution. Most tree topping and removal requires a permit. Do not hesitate to reach out to the relevant municipal or county government and tell them about the proposed work and why it is required. Many municipalities will send someone out to check on the trees for free. They will usually check the trees themselves, as well as provide written guidance on slide areas, environmentally sensitive areas, or any number of other potential issues.
Taking the time to check with the city can avoid an expensive lesson in municipal authority. The cost of a permit is drastically lower than a fine for illegally removing trees. Barker Martin has assisted many community associations with maintenance and compliance issues, as well as timber trespass claims against owners or neighbors who committed timber trespass against the association. If we can help your community with these issues, or anything else, please do not hesitate to reach out.