July 24, 2018

Tree party etiquette

As a homeowner, you may share a tree with your neighbor. Most of the time, a neighboring tree provides shade, home for songbirds and general aesthetic appeal, but not always.

Conflicts can arise if you feel a neighbor’s tree has become a nuisance or a danger to your property, but it’s important to know your rights and responsibilities before taking any drastic measures.

Tree laws vary from state to state (and neighborhood to neighborhood, depending on the bylaws of your homeowners association), but there are general standards defining what you can and can’t do.

But let’s just look at the state level.

All states allow you to trim branches and limbs that are hanging over your property, but you can’t trim them beyond the property line. But beware: if you harm the structural integrity or appearance of the tree in the process, you could be found liable for up to three times its value.

Therefore, it’s always recommended to do the neighborly thing and first discuss the issue with the tree’s owner. Mutually agreeing to a plan of action or giving them the opportunity to do the work could protect you from a potential legal claim.

Dangerous trees are another story. If a tree or limb falls and damages your property, the tree owner may be liable. So try to protect yourself—if there’s a dispute, the court will probably apply a “reasonable care” standard.

What’s that? Well, the tree owner is expected to make reasonable inspections to make sure the trees are safe, and should cut back branches or roots if they have the potential to cause injury or damage. If in the court’s judgment a reasonable person could not have foreseen damages, the tree owner will not be held liable.

When it comes to leaves, they’re considered a natural product. The owner of the tree is not responsible for their actions, even if they’re clogging up your gutters and drains. However, if the leaves are coming from branches overhanging your property, you can trim the branches as mentioned earlier.

In some cases, a trunk grows large enough to cross the property line and becomes a boundary tree with shared ownership. In this case, owners have to agree on any work that affects the whole tree.

If you have spoken to your neighbor about the tree, and nothing has been done, it may be considered a legal nuisance (as it interferes with your use and enjoyment of your own property). In that case, civil action may be appropriate.