South Portland’s proposed tree protection standards would impact some homeowners but are primarily targeted at large-scale projects. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer, file

The South Portland City Council is poised to pass regulations aimed at reducing and offsetting the number of trees cut down for development in the city.

The regulations would also apply to homeowners who want to take down large swaths of trees on their property, but exempt those who want to remove one or just a few for small improvement projects or because the trees are hazardous or unhealthy. The proposed rules are aimed primarily at developers.

“I am remembering back to two or three instances where there was clear-cutting happening on single-family zones to create larger projects,” Mayor Kate Lewis said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “Those are the things that sort of triggered ‘whoa, we should do a tree protection ordinance so we can’t just clear-cut here.’”

Tree protection was first considered in 2020, spurred by the Conservation Commission, the South Portland Land Trust and residents, who complained about the loss of undeveloped land in the city. The city developed tree protection standards then that City Manager Scott Morelli said “would likely represent the strongest tree protection ordinance in the state.” The council voted down those measures, however, because of their complexity and the need to hire additional staff to deal with them.

“I am happy that this has changed so much since the original that was proposed to us,” said Councilor Misha Pride.

The council gave preliminary approval to the rules Tuesday in a 4-2 vote, with Councilors Linda Cohen and Richard Matthews opposed and Councilor Deqa Dhalac absent. The new regulations require Planning Board approval on Sept. 27 and at least five in favor at a second council vote in order to pass. If approved, they would take effect Jan. 1.


Any project that calls for the removal of 10 or more “significant” trees, three or more “heritage” trees and any “historic” trees would require city approval under the new regulations. Significant trees are defined as those with a trunk diameter of 10 or more inches, heritage trees are either on the state’s registry of big trees or are determined to be 90 years or older by an expert, and historic trees are those included on the South Portland Inventory of Archaeological and Historic Resources because of their historical or cultural significance.

For projects that would require Planning Board approval, such as a large home addition or a new housing development, the proposed regulations give the board the authority to require adjustments to plans based on their size and impact on trees. Developers would be required to replace removed trees at a 1.5-1 ratio on-site or a 2-1 ratio elsewhere. In lieu of replanting, developers would have the option of paying a minimum of $500 per tree removed that would go toward a Tree Mitigation Fund, which could be used by the city to plant trees in public spaces.

Any development projects that require Planning Board approval would be exempt from the tree removal review if the trees are sick or dying, removed for pest management or to avoid structural damage. Cemeteries, city, state and federal infrastructure projects and Americans with Disabilities Act access improvements are also exempt.

“I think we have all seen the kind of emotional reaction about trees,” said Councilor Natalie West. “It’s really difficult for a Planning Board to sit and listen to testimony when there are neighbors opposing a project because of tree removal, and what this ordinance does is set some standards.”

Eamonn Dundon, director of advocacy at the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and a South Portland resident, spoke against the proposal. He said the ordinance adds “a roadblock to so much needed housing in South Portland,” specifically dense developments which are “critical” for the city to meet not only its housing but environmental goals. For example, a 12-unit apartment building takes up less space than 12 individual single-family homes.

Cohen prepared an amendment in writing ahead of the Tuesday meeting, calling for the exemption of single-family lots from the regulations. She argued that the proposed tree protection standards add another hurdle for new housing developments and are “intrusive to private property owners.”

Matthews voted in favor of Cohen’s amendment, but other councilors disagreed and it failed.

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