Friday, June 4, 2021 / by Ken Couture
Good fences make good neighbors, but when tree branches extend over those fences—or property lines—neighbors can become grouchy.
he most admired and sought-after natural specimens in the landscape, trees do more than provide soothing summer shade—they enhance curb appeal and increase the property's value if they're cared for. However, trees that grow on or near property lines can cause ongoing disagreement between neighbors, and in some cases, can lead to unneighborly feuds and lawsuits.
A tree near a property line belongs to the neighbor who owns the ground where it's growing. This is true even if the other neighbor planted the tree, so it's a good idea to have the property surveyed to determine the exact boundary line before planting border trees. Don't assume the boundary line lies where you stop mowing—it might be a few feet in either direction.
When a tree's trunk lies directly on the boundary line between properties, the tree is known as a boundary tree and is assumed as owned by both neighbors. In the case of boundary trees, both neighbors benefit by agreeing on how to care for the tree and share the trimming and care expenses. Both neighbors must consent to the tree's removal, and both hold legal responsibility for its care.
Bickering Over Branches
When branches from a neighbor's tree extend over the boundary line, the property owner has a right to trim the branches back—but only to the boundary line and no farther. Also, the trimming and pruning must not be so extensive that they kill the tree. If overpruning leads to a tree’s demise, the heavy-cutting property owner could be legally liable for replacing the tree, which, in some cases, can run thousands of dollars.
Spreading roots of large trees can push down fences and cause curbs and sidewalks to heave and crack. When wandering tree roots damage a neighbor's property, financial liability for the damage falls on the tree's owner. A court—or in some cases, the local planning and zoning authority—might order the tree's owner to pay to remove the tree.
Although one neighbor can reasonably trim a branch that extends over a property line, if that branch bears fruit, the fruit belongs to the tree's owner—no picking without permission. However, the law is less clear about fruit that falls to the ground, so check with local authorities to see whether you can gather apples or pears that fall on your side.
Fallen leaves from large deciduous trees can blanket a yard in autumn, but a tree's owner is not responsible for clearing fallen leaves from a neighbor's yard. The law typically considers leaves a "natural product," and as such, each property owner is obliged to remove the leaves from their own yard. However, a thoughtful tree owner might offer to rake the leaves that fall in a neighbor's yard.
Healthy, well-maintained trees are less likely to break, and if a storm sends a limb from your tree through a neighbor's roof, you might not be liable if you can show that the tree was healthy when the limb broke. Courts (and insurance policies) might deem the damage an "Act of God." If, however, the tree was in bad shape and you failed to fix it, you might have to pay to repair the neighbor's property.
In many communities, you're just out of luck if the neighbor's tall trees keep you from enjoying the sunset. Still, a few communities have view ordinances that acknowledge a scenic view increases property value, and if a neighbor's trees block that view, you might have the right to have the trees removed.
Whether you're a lawn care novice or a master gardener, everyone can use a little help around the yard.
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