Trees, Neighbors and The Law

What to do in Tree Yard Disputes hazardous trees

As an arborist, I am often made aware of neighbor versus neighbor disputes over trees. The right to trim a neighbor’s tree, determining who pays when trees cause property damage and the right to plant trees near property lines are all important issues that could use some clarity. To that end, I would like to share some of the frequently asked questions I receive regarding tree disputes. But first let me ad this disclaimer. The following FAQs are not to be viewed as legal advice. If you have a legal problem concerning trees, please consult a lawyer.

Q. Branches from my neighbor’s trees are encroaching on my property. Can I have them pruned?
Yes. You can cut the branches of your neighbor’s trees to the boundary line. However the trees must remain as close as possible to their original form and you must not violate accepted pruning standards.

Q. Who pays to have the trees pruned, my neighbor or me?
That depends. If your neighbor’s trees were planted before you bought your home, then you will have to pay to have them pruned. The reason for this is that when you purchased your home, you accepted all the existing conditions of your property, including your neighbor’s trees. It doesn’t matter that his tree branches weren’t yet encroaching on your property at the time of your purchase. However, if your neighbor planted his trees after you purchased your home and they are now encroaching on your property, your neighbor will have to foot the bill for the pruning.

Q. My large oak tree uprooted during a recent storm and crashed into my neighbor’s garage. Am I responsible for the damages?
Probably not. You do have a duty to keep your property in reasonably safe condition. So unless your knew your tree was unhealthy or unsafe and failed to take action, then the accident is considered to be an act of god. Your neighbor’s homeowner’s insurance policy will cover the damages. (But if you want to be “neighborly” you may offer to help him with his deductible.)

Q. There is a dead tree that belongs to my neighbor that is pretty close to my property line and I fear it will fall and cause damage to my home. Can I make my neighbor remove this hazardous tree?
Usually you can. First try talking to your neighbor and see if he will listen to reason. If that fails, contact an arborist to inspect the tree and confirm that it is both dead and a safety hazard. Then approach your neighbor again. You might also contact the city sharing the results of the arborist’s findings and ask the city to write a letter to your neighbor, requesting that he remove the problem tree. (In some cases and in some cities, they will send a crew out to remove the tree and then levy a tax on the homeowner to pay for the work.) If all these steps are taken and the matter is still not resolved, you (or your lawyer) can draft a letter noting the arborist’s findings and once again insist that your neighbor remove the tree. Even if you are not prepared to go to court over this mater, at least you will have some documentation of the problem. That way if his tree does damage your property, your neighbor will likely be held responsible for all damages.

Jon Wilbur is an ISA Certified Arborist and co-owner of Pinellas Tree Service, in Clearwater.

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Copyright, 2005, All Rights Reserved

Jon Wilbur