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Boundary Trees May Not Make Good Neighbors

Poet Robert Frost’s statement about fences making good neighbors may not apply to trees planted on a boundary line. Boundary trees have been sources of contention between neighbors for centuries, and it has led to laws that govern who owns boundary line trees and who’s responsible for their care.

A book, entitled Arboriculture and the Law, published by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), states that, generally, courts find that a tree positioned on a property line between two residences is common property, and thus, the responsibility of both property owners. ISA explains, “This typically means the tree cannot be pruned, destroyed, or altered without both parties agreeing to the changes. Sometimes this requires the two parties to have a written agreement on the terms of care for the tree. If a tree is securely on your property, in the eyes of the law you are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep.”

Sometimes a tree that you planted near your lot line grows and grows until it straddles the boundary between your yard and the neighbor’s. When that happens, you have a new partner in the ownership of that tree. This can lead to disagreements between you and your reluctant co-owner. This situation can be prevented by making sure you know the expected trunk diameter and crown and root spread of any tree or shrub you plant close to the boundary line and make sure it’s far enough into your property to keep it from encroaching on your neighbor’s property. As an aside, shared ownership also applies to fences on the boundary line. So, install fences several inches on your side of the line, too.

More common than a tree straddling a boundary line is a tree that’s allowed to grow unattended until branches hang over into your neighbor’s yard and drops leaves in their yard, possibly in their pool or on their patio, or drops litter on their vehicles. Worse yet are situations in which branches hanging over the neighbor’s house breaks and falls on the roof or the roots grow under the driveway, causing it to heave. Who’s responsible for such damage? According to the lawyers who wrote the ISA book, the common rule of thumb is that a homeowner should consider themselves responsible for tending to any trees that could cause harm to a neighbor’s home or person.

If you don’t take the responsibility for your interfering tree, the neighbor can take the necessary action on their side of the boundary, according to the law. They can remove any portion of the tree invading their property. ISA states that courts have determined that a landowner owns all the space above and below his property, and if something invades either of those areas, it is his
right to remove it.

If the wind breaks a branch and it falls on the neighbor’s roof you can’t escape responsibility by pleading ignorance or that it was an “Act of God.” If you could have prevented the damage by regularly checking and maintaining your tree(s), you may be able to prevent many problems in your life. It’s also a good idea to maintain a photo history with before and after of everything you do or have done. If your trees or landscape does sustain damage, ISA recommends that you….

• Contact your homeowner’s insurance company.
• Have the insurance company send a professional tree and landscaping appraiser out to your property immediately after the damage has occurred.
• Have the appraiser determine your financial loss, including the cost of removal and repair.
• Have any repairs or removal work performed by our professional arborists. We have 13 ISA Certified Arborists and one Board Certified Arborist on staff.

One comment on “Boundary Trees May Not Make Good Neighbors

  1. Such disputes used to be a significant part of my work. Fortunately, they were not the bad sort of disputes. Typically a neighbor wanted to confirm another neighbors concerns before complying with the other neighbor’s request for removal. Some of my colleagues work with nastier situations. Solar panels are a sore subject here.

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