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What Can I Cut? A Summary of Tree Cutting Rules Within the 100’ Buffer

Updated: May 1



By John Bell, Waterford Code Enforcement Officer


As Waterford’s Code Enforcement Officer (CEO), one of the topics that I address most frequently is tree cutting within the Shoreland Zoning (SLZ) 100’ buffer protection zone. The rules are written to cover a variety of situations and consequently can be confusing. First, check the Shoreland Zoning Map to determine whether you are in Rural Shoreland, Resource Protection or a Stream Protection Zone. This summary is only applicable to the Rural Shoreland Zone.


Before I get into the standards, it might be helpful to understand the intent of the rules. If you have ever stood under a tree in a heavy downpour, you know that you still get wet but that the raindrops are diffused and slowed from traveling through the branches, leaves or needles. The drops don’t pound on you like they do when you stand out in the open. Out in the open and on a lawn or non-vegetated area, the heavy driving rain can accumulate quickly and form rivulets that congregate and begin flowing downhill, usually towards the lake and carrying phosphorous and other pollutants with them. Under trees and brush, the diffused drops (mist) are more easily absorbed into the duff and topsoil where they can percolate down into the non-compacted ground or be taken up by the roots of the trees and the low-growing shrubs and bushes. This vegetated buffer can also slow down and absorb water flowing in from the open areas.


The key components to this protection are a well distributed stand of trees without large openings, an understory of small shrubs and bushes, and an undisturbed duff layer. That is essentially the goal of the rules within the buffer:

  1. Maintaining a well distributed tree stand does not mean no trees can be cut. While there is a point system for determining the tree volume that can be removed, the bottom line is that there can be no openings created in the canopy larger than 250 square feet. That’s a circle that’s about 18’ across or a square a little less than 16’ x 16’ measured from the outer limits of the tree or shrub crown. The stand should be comprised of trees and shrubs of a variety of sizes and ages thereby providing a good canopy and a sustainable stand as younger trees grow and replace dying trees.

  2. The existing vegetation under 3’ in height and other ground cover, including leaf litter and forest duff cannot be cut, covered, or removed.

  3. The exception to 2 is a footpath that meanders (not in a straight line) between the trees, through the buffer zone to the lake. This path can be up to 6 feet wide.

  4. The bottom third of trees within the buffer may be limbed.

  5. If a tree appears to be creating a hazard, either ask the CEO to come look at it or fill out the SLZ Hazard Tree Permit Application. If the removal of a hazard (or dead) tree creates a canopy opening over 250 square feet, the tree must be replaced with a native tree species unless there is existing new tree growth present.

  6. For any tree that is cut within the buffer zone, the stump may not be removed.

There are many nuances and different scenarios in the SLZ ordinance, and this summary should not be a substitute for reading or referring to it. Section 15.P, p. 29 pertains to clearing and removal of vegetation. Commercial timber harvests have different rules and are not represented in this summary.


Q&A


Q: I can’t see the lake from my cottage, can I cut trees in order to open up a view to the lake?

A: Maybe. First, remember that you can remove limbs from the bottom third of the tree, which in many cases is all that is required to open up a view. If that is not enough, you are allowed to do some selective cutting within the buffer. But this must be done in a manner that maintains a well distributed stand and creates no openings in the canopy over 250 square feet. If you’re envious of your neighbor that has lawn out to the lake because it was cleared before there was shoreland zoning, try to find comfort in the fact that your buffer is protecting the lake.


Q: Small trees are beginning to block my view of the lake. Can I cut these?

A: Maybe. If it is in an area that has been clear of trees since before the SLZ ordinance was adopted (March 1992), it is a legally existing nonconforming cleared opening and may be maintained but cannot be enlarged. Otherwise, you must leave saplings (2” diameter or less at 4.5‘ above ground) at a density of 5 for every 25 foot by 50 foot rectangle within the buffer. Saplings in excess of 5 can be cut, but no cutting of low-growing (3’ or less) vegetation. Cleared areas that have reverted to primarily shrubs, trees or other woody plants are treated like a forested area and cannot be cleared.


Q: There is a big pine leaning towards my house, can I have it cut?

A: Again, maybe. Hazard trees are generally defined as trees with structural defects that could fall over in a typical storm (not a hurricane or other extreme wind event). But there are occasions when although the tree does not appear to have a structural defect, the potential risk it poses if it did blow down and/or the likelihood of it blowing down despite not having a structural defect, justifies its removal. The loss of canopy must be remediated promptly with a revegetation plan approved by the CEO. CEO approval is required for hazard tree removal in the buffer area. You can either ask the CEO to come look at the tree or fill out the SLZ Hazard Tree Permit Application, which is also available on the town website.


Q: I have heard that I can repeat a large thinning of my lot every 5 years, is that true?

A: The ordinance says that using the point system “…no more than 40% of the total volume of trees four (4) inches or more in diameter, measured at four and one half feet (4 ½’) above ground level may be removed in any ten (10) year period.” Anyone considering thinning to that extent, should read section 15.P closely and create a detailed plan that is then approved by the CEO before proceeding. If there are any questions/doubts I suggest hiring a professional forester to help create the plan. And remember that rules 1-6 in the previous section are applicable to any tree cutting within the buffer zone.

 

Q: Can I cut the dead trees within the buffer zone?

A: Generally, yes. But the removal of a dead tree is subject to the same rules (1-6) as any other tree. Also, if the tree is not too unsightly and doesn’t pose a risk to people or property, consider leaving it. Dead trees play an important role in the ecosystem, providing habitat for many living organisms. Learn more here.


Q: A storm blew one of my trees into the lake, can I remove it?

A: Yes. It must be done within one year of falling and it requires an NRPA Permit by Rule (PBR) from DEP. The application is available on Maine DEP’s website’s PBR page, which has step-by step instructions and even a video for how to submit a PBR notification form. Removal of a tree from the water is in Section 12, Restoration of Natural Areas PBR.


Q: Is CEO approval required for any tree removal within the 100’ buffer?

A: No, only for permission to cut a hazard tree. But if you have questions, do not hesitate to reach out. I am in the office 7:30–4:00 Tues–Fri  (207-583-4403). Or you can email me at ceo@waterfordme.org.


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