Tree Topping

Topping is one of the worst things that a person can do to a tree.  It disfigures the tree at the very least, and almost always causes profilic sprouting with weakly attached branches, limb and trunk decay, decline, and premature death.

For more information on why this practice is so harmful, click here to download the publication “Why Topping Hurts Trees” published by the International Society of Arboriculture.

Who Tops Trees?

Unfortunately, tree owners aren’t the only ones that top trees–some tree services still commit this harmful act, and many landscape contractors do also.  Crape myrtles in particular are regularly topped by homeowners and landscape contractors alike.  For arborists, trying to stop this harmful practice, primarily through information and education, can take a very long time and cause a lot of frustration when the frequency of topping doesn’t seem to decrease.  That’s why some communities choose to address tree topping in their ordinances as a more effective way to reduce the occurrence of this harmful practice.

Public Tree Topping Prohibited

There are at least 40 tree ordinances in Georgia that prohibit the topping of public trees, and these ordinances usually state the following:

It shall be unlawful as a normal practice for any person, firm, or city department to top any street tree, park tree, or other tree on public property. Topping is defined as the severe cutting back of limbs to stubs larger than three inches in diameter within the tree’s crown to such a degree so as to remove the normal canopy and disfigure the tree. Trees severely damaged by storms or other causes, or certain trees under utility wires or other obstructions where other pruning practices are impractical may be exempted from this article at the determination of the [tree board, administrator, city manager, etc.].

While communities set a good example by not topping trees, property owners and landscape contractors continue to top trees, especially crapemyrtles.  To reduce this practice on private property, some communities extend the topping prohibition to trees on private property in their tree ordinances.

Private Tree Topping Prohibited

There are 18 communities in Georgia that prohibit the topping of trees on private property to some degree–most commonly on new developments and developed commercial sites.  These communities are:

  • Berkeley Lake
  • Columbus
  • Conyers
  • Covington
  • Dalton
  • Decatur
  • Dunwoody
  • East Point
  • Fairburn
  • Gwinnett County
  • Milton
  • Peachtree Corners
  • Rincon
  • Rockdale County
  • Snellville
  • Statesboro
  • Tyrone
  • Valdosta
  • Vidalia

The City of Valdosta has a unique approach to the prohibition on tree topping.  As in the communities listed above, their tree ordinance states topping is prohibited, as follows:

Section 328-26 Tree Topping

No tree topping or roundovering shall be allowed on new and existing developments, city rights-of-way, city lands, or non-residential properties. Trees which have been topped as defined in Section 106-1 (“Definitions”) must be replaced with the replacement trees pursuant to the replacement requirements referenced in Section 328-16 herein.

In addition, however, they include in Section 328-36 – Violations and Penalties, a provision for a one-time warning for crapemyrtle topping as follows:

For crepe myrtle topping ONLY, one warning will be issued to the violator for the first violation, then all subsequent violations will be treated as listed above for the First, Second, Third or Subsequent Offenses. A violator will only receive one warning, regardless of the months or years that have passed between the warning and the next violation.

For more information on the City of Valdosta’s tree regulations and this unique provision, click here.

In Berkeley Lake, Dunwoody, and Snellville, trees that have been topped are ineligible to be designated as specimen trees.

In most of these communities, trees that are topped become ineligible for tree density credits and must be replaced for the site to continue to meet tree density requirements, even well after the certificate of occupancy has been issued.

We want to know more about tree topping in your community…

What other unique approaches exist in Georgia tree ordinances to address tree topping on private property?

How often is the prohibition on topping enforced?

Are citizens and business owners aware that this is a harmful practice and is prohibited?

When it is discovered that protected trees have been topped, does staff have the time and support necessary to notify a property owner of such a violation and follow through with the correction of the violation?

These are all good questions, but we don’t have the answers!  Please send us information on your community’s approach to tree topping to

Thank you!

Posted December 2017