Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

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.

A woman stops to admire the lights as she walks through the Christmas Tree Stand at LOVE Park on Dec. 16, 2014. ( CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer )
A woman stops to admire the lights as she walks through the Christmas Tree Stand at LOVE Park on Dec. 16, 2014. ( CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer )Read more

 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."

Executive Fire Chief Clifford Gilliam said that in his 15 years with the department, he could not recall a Christmas tree fire. Still, he said, the code is meant as a safety precaution, to prevent dried-up trees from igniting in populated buildings. Potted trees with roots attached and wrapped in burlap are permitted. They are much less likely to dry out.

Nationally, firefighters respond to about 230 fires that start with Christmas trees each year, according to the National Fire Protection Association. On average, six people die each year from Christmas tree-related fires.

Philadelphia's code is more stringent than the international fire code, which Pennsylvania adopted in 2003. That code allows naturally cut trees in apartments, businesses, day-care centers, and other facilities.

Some suburbs have a ban similar to Philadelphia's. In New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles, fire codes allow real trees in apartments and condos. Rules exist in some cases for public spaces or businesses. And landlords can ban trees on their own.

"It seems a little unnecessary. Most buildings are alarmed, aren't they?" said Kristin Mansfield, who admitted she has had real trees in her apartment at the Drake in Center City. "But they were little Charlie Brown trees."

At the Christmas Tree Stand in LOVE Park, seller Lou McCall, 25, caters almost exclusively to apartment dwellers, many or whom are carless and arrive toting large trash bags to take home tabletop four-footers.

Just since Black Friday, McCall said, he has seen it all: Bicyclists will attach the wrapped trees to cargo carriers on the side of their bikes and scoot home.

A SEPTA bus driver in the holiday spirit let one Christmas tree ride on the bike rack attached to the front of the bus.

"Where there's a will, there's a way," McCall said.

The ban affects roughly one-third of Philadelphia residents. According to census data, 33 percent of the city's population lives in multiunit dwellings.

The city's condominium residents have the most trouble skirting the law. Some doormen are instructed to look out for trees, and newsletters go out weeks ahead of the holidays reminding residents of the ban.

"I've sold probably over 35,000 condos. I've yet to have one buyer tell me, 'I'm not going to buy because I can't get a real Christmas tree,' " said Allan Domb, a real estate broker and president of the Greater Philadelphia Realtors Association. Judi Forte, general manager at Hopkinson House, a building with 536 units on Washington Square, said notices are posted throughout the building, in the monthly newsletter, and in the company's rules and regulations: No cut trees allowed.

"We don't get much pushback, but occasionally someone will sneak one in," Forte said. "They'll go up the fire tower or find some way without it being seen - and we don't see it until it goes out with the trash."

Things are slightly more relaxed at the Versailles, at 15th and Locust Streets.

Mike Tucker Jr. has worked as a doorman there for 10 years and said he was not expected to tell police what residents bring in and out.

"They'll come over before they go get one and whisper, 'Mike, are you going to stop me? What's the reception going to be?' I've never stopped anyone," he said, smiling. "It's their space, their home."

Philadelphia's ban does not appear to affect business for sellers of holiday trees. Industrywide, more and better-looking fake trees are on the market than ever, said Norm Schultz, farm manager at Linvilla Orchards in Media. "Overall, it's not as prevalent for people to have a live tree as they did 20 years ago or 30 years ago," he said - though he said Linvilla's cut-your-own-tree business was booming.

Financially, falling in line with the city's ban might be smart. Real trees can sell for as much as $75 in Center City and don't go much lower than the $35 Einhorn paid for his miniature fir.

Plus, in his case, the cost of a cab to haul it home.

Editor's Note: This article was changed to correct the number of condos sold by Allan Domb. It is 35,000, not 3.500.