Road Commission explains Cass County’s tree removal policy

Published 8:00 am Friday, September 25, 2015

If a tree falls on a Cass County roadway and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Philosophers can debate that question all they want, because the bottom line is, that fallen piece of lumber is going to cause a lot of headaches come the morning, for motorists, residents and the crews responsible for maintaining local roads.

The bigger question is, to whom does that fallen tree belong exactly?

The leadership of the Cass County Road Commission has the answer, which may surprise many residents.

In a news release by the commission published this week, the administration informed residents that trees within county right-of-ways belong to property owners and not the county. Typically, right-of-ways are 66-foot wide easements that contain public roads and highways; trees growing within this property boundary are considered part of the right-of-way.

While crews with the commission will routinely trim branches and shrubs to ensure visibility for drivers on public roadways, the landowners themselves are responsible for removing any dead, diseased or otherwise damaged trees located at right-of-ways, said Road Commission Director Steve Lucas.

“There is [Michigan] case law that has established this,” Lucas said. “In fact, some road commissions have removed trees without permission from property owners in the past, and have actually been sued because of it.”

The idea that trees located at right-of-ways belong to the county is a common misconception among many in the county, Lucas said. His office occasionally receives phone calls from residents requesting that road crews come out and remove trees from their property, the director added.

In the past, the county road commission did have a tree crew dedicated to helping property owners remove foliage from their land, with the agency absorbing the cost of the work. As budgets for road commissions across the state have shrank and the cost of paving, gravel, fuel and other important resources have rose in recent years, the office has eliminated these types of removals, Lucas said.

“It was a relatively common things for commissions to do that kind of work, but the funding isn’t there anymore to support those operations,” he said.

With tree pests like the Emerald Ash Borer moving into the region in recent years, the problem with damaged trees within right-of-ways could continue to grow in magnitude, Lucas said. Property owners could be found liable if one of these trees is not removed and causes harm to others, the release also states.

Residents with damaged trees are encouraged to contact a tree removal contractor to perform the work, Lucas said.

In the event that a tree is uprooted and falls during a major storm, the road crews will still go out and remove the obstruction from the street, Lucas said.

“If something falls in the roadway, we will certainly go out and get that taken care of,” he said. “We don’t expect residents to handle that.”

The fallen tree will be broken into manageable chunks and given to the property owner, who will then be responsible for disposal.