Conflicts involving trees and neighbors

Trees are essential to life. Their benefits include oxygen production, erosion control, storm water diversion, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, beauty, shade, privacy, proportion, increased property value, seasonal transition, and historical continuity. Yet not all trees remain appropriate for their location. Because trees constantly change, their growing presence can unreasonably interfere with the lawful use and enjoyment of neighboring properties. They may become a source of annoyance, nuisance, danger, and destruction. The same trees that provide shade, beauty, hammock supports, and family memories for one household can grow to block treasured views, interfere with sunlight access to patios or solar panels, stain cars, crack driveways and foundations with swelling roots, or extend heavy and sometimes decayed branches over adjacent yards and homes.

Given the fact that the same tree can provide a wide range of benefits and burdens, a tree can become both a treasure and source of resentment. As a tree grows, views may be blocked or a neighbor’s once-level walkway may become hazardous from encroaching roots or falling fruit. The competing sentiments of each party can be as tenacious and emotionally exhausting as divorce court disputes over children, pets, and possessions.

The most common tree dispute among neighbors are overgrown limbs and tree roots. Generally, shrubbery, foliage and branches that encroach onto the land of another is a nuisance. Legally the owner of the encroached land may cure the problem by trimming the overhanging foliage, branches and limbs, as long as the owner acts reasonably so as not to seriously injure or kill the tree. If a landowner cuts foliage that is not encroaching and does not have the tree owner’s permission to trim, the person cutting the foliage may be liable for up to triple the amount of the damage caused by the wrongful cutting. However, if the damage is accidental or based on a mistaken belief, damages may be limited to double the value of the wrongful cutting.

Although adjoining landowners have almost an unfettered right to trim encroaching limbs, branches and foliage, that is not the case with tree roots. If roots encroach under adjacent property, the property owner can sever the roots, but only if the roots are causing damage and only if done reasonably and professionally. Then, the owner of the encroaching tree can be held liable for the actual out-of-pocket expenses incurred as a direct result of the tree’s encroaching roots.

However, if the adjoining landowner negligently severs tree roots and seriously injures or kills a tree, the owner of the tree may sue. The California appellate courts have ruled that a homeowner does not have the “absolute right” to cut the tree roots any way he wanted even if the roots are uprooting his driveway. In their ruling the court stated that a homeowner’s right to manage his own land must be “tempered by his duty to act reasonably.” Thus, a landowner’s right to remove the portions of an encroaching tree must be balanced against the obligations to act reasonably toward adjoining landowners and to refrain from causing foreseeable injury to neighboring property.

In California, if someone damages your tree, you can recover your actual damages (usually, what you paid for the tree or what it would cost to replace the tree). California laws allow you to recover additional damages if someone deliberately damages your tree.

Therefore the best approach when dealing with your neighbor’s tree is to proceed with caution.  It never hurts to talk to your neighbor before you start pruning the trees or cutting roots. Getting permission in advance is not only the neighborly thing to do but can avoid problems down the road.



Published: May 29, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 07