Tree party etiquette

Posted by on July 24th, 2018

As a homeowner, you may have occasion to 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 law varies from state to state, but there are general standards defining what you can and can’t do.

All states allow you to trim branches and limbs overhanging your property, but you can’t trim them beyond the line. If you harm the structural integrity or appearance of the tree in the process of trimming it, you could be found liable for up to three times its value.

Therefore, it’s always advisable to do the neighborly thing, and discuss the issue with the tree’s owner first. 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. Try to protect yourself. If there is a dispute, the court will probably apply a “reasonable care” standard.

The tree owner is expected to make reasonable inspections to make sure 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.

Blowing leaves are considered a natural product, and the owner of the tree is not responsible for their actions, even if they are clogging up your gutters and drains.

However, if the leaves are coming from branches overhanging your property, you may trim the branches in the previously described fashion.

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

If you have spoken to your neighbor about the tree, and nothing has been done, it may constitute a nuisance by interfering with your use and enjoyment of your own property.