Skirting Phila.’s sapling statute: A holiday tree tradition

Bryce Einhorn carried a three-foot-tall noble fir and its green plastic stand out of LOVE Park and onto busy JFK Boulevard to hail a cab for home.

Little did Einhorn know that this holiday decoration, bound for his Center City apartment, would soon stand in twinkling defiance of the law.

Since the early 1980s, Philadelphia fire’s code has forbidden naturally cut trees in all multiunit dwellings, including high-rise condominiums, apartments, and businesses. An exception exists for one- and two-family homes.

“Seriously? With so many people living in apartments, that seems like a harsh thing to do,” said Einhorn, 25, on break from the Temple University School of Medicine. Surprised but undeterred by the rule, Einhorn, who is Jewish and celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah, went on to gingerly place his evergreen in the front of the taxi and take off. “Let the people live a little, you know?”

The sapling statute does not appear to generate much enforcement, except in large condominium buildings, where doormen, security guards, and building managers are on high alert.

Officially, anyway. Some doormen tell of letting tree-loving tenants off with a whisper or a wink.

“It depends how closely your landlord is watching,” said Kristin Mulvenna, manager at Urban Jungle near Passyunk Square, which sells real and fake trees. “But let me put it this way: We’ve sold about 500 live trees, and we still have a week to go. Artificial? I think we’re at four.”

The code dates to 1982 and carries a fine of $300 a day.

No need to panic in the calming glow of your Douglas fir, though – no citations were issued in 2013, and only two were handed out in 2012, said Ralph DiPietro, deputy commissioner of licenses and inspections.

He said even those two violators may not have had to pay fines. Unless a tree poses a serious risk, the owner has 35 days to remove it after receiving a violation notice.

“That generally coincides with the end of the holiday season anyway,” DiPietro said.

He said it was important for people to be aware of fire hazards – “everyone needs to make sure their lights aren’t frayed, they’re watering the tree, not tripling up on extension cords. If they can keep away the ignition factors, trees are rarely a problem.”

Read more of this article by Julia Terruso by clicking here.

Photo: Charles Fox /