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Trying to Uproot a Backyard Problem

Times Staff Writer

Question: When we moved here 20 years ago, we had an absolutely breathtaking view of the valley and the mountains beyond. In fact, we bought the house because of the view. Now the view is totally blocked by a neighbor’s tree--a tree of no benefit to the neighbor--and it has destroyed our property value. He adamantly refuses to remove the tree and will not allow me to do so, regardless of monetary compensation.

The neighbor’s backyard is about 200 feet downhill from mine, and most of the hillside belongs to him. He planted this tree near the top of the hill, a few inches from the fence separating our properties--on his side of the fence, but squarely in the middle of my view. About half the branches and roots are on my side and, incidentally, taking water from my sprinkler system and nutrients from my ground cover. I realize that I could legally cut off the branches on my side of the fence, but this would not open the view and might make the tree spread out even further. Obviously, the neighbor can’t see the tree from his house (whereas, from my house, it’s all I can see) , and it isn’t needed for shade, privacy or erosion control.

‘Senseless Aggression’

What are my options (legal and otherwise) for getting rid of this tree? It’s an act of senseless aggression, causing mental pain and suffering, robbing me of daily enjoyment and decreasing my property’s value. Probably I should first ascertain that the tree trunk is indeed not on my property. How could I determine the exact location of the property line? In hillside developments, are the fences usually on the exact property line?

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If I cut down the tree while standing on my side, what can I be charged with, and what is the fine? Are the roots on my side my legal property?

This problem has nothing to do with my attitude toward trees in general. I am a Sierra Club member and love trees. This point is that the neighbor could have put this tree in the middle of his own backyard instead of in the middle of mine.--D.H.

Answer: Next to barking dogs, marauding children and ear-shattering stereos, does anything create more ill will between neighbors than view-blocking trees?

One can read between the lines here and sense that this feud has been simmering for years and that what once might have been settled amicably has passed the point of no return. This would be a dirty shame because all of the “solutions” that come to mind in this sort of antagonistic environment aren’t a tenth as satisfactory as a mediated solution would be.

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Since (I gather) the two of you aren’t even speaking now, isn’t there someone in the neighborhood--a mutual friend, one would hope--who would be acceptable as a mediator in working this out?

Whose Property?

Otherwise, the first suggestion that comes to mind is the point that you yourself have raised: the possibility that a land survey would show that the tree is on your property. Then you could dispose of it any way you want. Fences, as surveyor Gene Rutledge of Joel Silverman and Associates, Woodland Hills, points out, “don’t really mean too much. It frequently depends on who erected the fence in the first place. Commonly, that person will put the fence a foot inside his property line.”

That, therefore, wouldn’t do you much good if your neighbor had the fence erected in the first place. It would simply put the tree all that much farther onto his land. If, on the other hand, you had the fence erected--and the tree is close enough to overhang it that much--then it’s entirely possible that it is on your land. Unfortunately, Rutledge adds, a survey to definitively establish this point could cost you $1,000 or more--although most surveyors will give you an estimate at no charge. So you might want to explore this.

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Agreeing to pick up the cost of having the tree moved (not re moved) to another part of your neighbor’s lot “simply isn’t practical--not with a mature tree on the top of a hill,” according to Paul Hartley, owner of Jerry’s Tree Service in Los Angeles. “It would involve a crane, and the cost would be prohibitive.”

One lawyer’s suggestion: “You might check the County Recorder’s Office to see if, at the time the development was filed, there were any covenants, conditions or restrictions incorporated into it that would prevent the planting of anything that would impair the view.”

But that, admittedly, is a pretty far-out possibility.

And, from still another lawyer: “The same California law that gives the property owner the right to cut off branches overhanging the property also gives him the right to cut off roots on his side of the line.” And that, conceivably, could kill the tree.

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“But,” she continues, “then the owner of the tree might sue for damages, and there we go again.”

As testy as things seem to be between you and your neighbor, cutting the tree down from your side of the fence (or digging up its roots) would almost surely result in a lawsuit--and it could constitute malicious trespassing on your part, both lawyers agree. And the lawsuit would be a much larger potential dent in your pocketbook than any fine would be.

Sue the Owner

“She could, of course, sue the owner of the tree for damages for her lowered property value,” one lawyer adds, “and then he’d have to retain a lawyer and, at that point, he might decide it’s not worth it and have the tree cut down. But I’d hate to see it come to that.”

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The best solution, all hands agree: Get a third-party mediator and offer to pay for the removal of the tree and its replacement with a professionally planted tree (of lesser size, naturally) somewhere on your neighbor’s property where he can really enjoy it.

Yes, I know, you suggest that you’ve tried this. Try it again through a dispassionate third party.

In a situation like this, one’s real sympathies have to go out to the poor, innocent tree.

Q: My wife and I recently applied for a Visa card and were turned down “because you have had one or more delinquent credit obligations.” We received our “credit profile” from TRW Information Services and were horrified to discover that in December, 1980, Wells Fargo Bank had charged off a $2,000 debt.

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We have never had any dealings of any kind with Wells Fargo and have never had any communications, verbal or written, with any official, agent or representative of that bank. The entry is patently ludicrous in that in 1980, when this alleged defalcation occurred, we were (and are now) living in our own home, conservatively valued at $175,000, with only a $16,000 first mortgage. Further, at that time, we had a substantial amount of unencumbered personal property including three vehicles, one of which was a $4,000 antique Model A Ford. With this in mind, it boggles the mind to wonder why Wells Fargo didn’t send the sheriff thundering down the pike in their stagecoach to collect their $2,000. And since when do banks charge off a debt in just seven months? According to the TRW record, the account was opened in May, 1980, and, in December of the same year, they had written it off!

Further, it appears that this piece of negative dross, thoroughly inconsistent with all other entries in our record, has been festering in TRW’s computer for almost five years and would be there even longer--and passed out as gospel--had we not been refused credit by Visa.--F.J.

A: It’s a sobering thought, all right, to think that for almost five years anyone inquiring about your credit would have been sent a profile labeling you a deadbeat.

You should be able to take some comfort in one aspect of this, however. Delia Fernandez, TRW’s consumer affairs specialist, feels that the odds are extremely slim that this negative information has, at any time, strayed outside TRW’s computer. Why? Because the only time your credit profile is released to anyone is on the occasion of your applying somewhere for credit (as you did for the Visa card). And, if that had happened--two, three or four years earlier--you would have gotten the same sort of turndown two, three or four years ago. We do know for a fact that only one inquiry was received about you in the last year (all such inquiries are noted for a full year).

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And the last line on your report shows that the savings & loan association offering you the Visa (and then turning you down) made its query on April 18 of this year.

But, I’ll grant you that it’s acutely disturbing to know that this negative and erroneous entry has been lying there, like a boil, for almost five years.

And TRW’s tracer on the Wells Fargo entry was complicated by the very fact that you haven’t applied for credit anywhere for so long. The account, early in the game, was turned over to a collection agency (from which you haven’t heard anything either), and the records had gotten a little dusty.

Mix-up With Names

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What obviously happened, Fernandez adds, is that--since you have such a common name (no offense)--the other F.J. took Wells Fargo for $2,000 back in 1980 and disappeared with any and all assets he might have had.

The fact that the bank wrote it off as a bad debt so quickly isn’t really all that unusual, she continues, in instances where the first two or three payments are missed--right off the bat--and the debtor simply vanishes. If the debtor refuses to pay, but remains visible, the write-off is slower because the hope continues at the bank and its collection agency that either the debtor will eventually cough up, or that some of his assets can be tracked down and attached. And December is a popular time for banks and lenders to clear their books of bad debts before the end of the year.

How can two people with the same name, but with different addresses and different Social Security numbers get mixed up like this? No one knows, but the scary thing is that it happens.

“The man’s experience,” Fernandez adds, “underlines what we tell people all the time: It’s a good idea, every year or two, to spend $8 and send for a copy of their record--just to make sure that something like this hasn’t happened. Of course, we don’t make any money from this end of our business.”

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If it’s simply a dispute between the consumer and a lender or vendor that has prompted a negative entry (and TRW has nothing to do with all this--it simply reports what the lender or vendor has passed along to it), then the consumer has the right to write a rebuttal letter (up to 100 words), which is attached to his file and is automatically made a part of it.

In your case, naturally, that wasn’t going to cut it--an earlier charge-off is an immediate kiss of death as far as any credit grantor is concerned, and a letter from you disputing it wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s written on.

Happily, TRW, in short order, reported back to me that Wells Fargo has conceded that you’re the wrong F.J. and has authorized them to strike the negative report off your record (TRW, naturally, can’t take such an action on its own). And, I’m assured, that was done just a few hours before this was written. The whole procedure would have been easier if all of this had come to light two or three years ago, but you can’t be faulted for this. Who thinks of such a thing happening to him?

Fernandez’s own policy, she volunteers, is “to send for my credit report about three months before I know that I’m going to be applying for credit to make a major purchase of some kind. That way, if I find an error, I’ll have time to set it right.”

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Ironically, the negative entry that has given you such woes would have been expunged from your record automatically this coming December anyway, even if you had welshed on the debt since the statute of limitations on a charge-off runs out after five years.

Anyone wanting to avoid the sort of surprise experienced by F.J. can sneak a look at his credit profile at any time:

Drop a line to TRW Information Services (505 City Parkway West, Orange, Calif. 92668). What the credit-reporting firm needs, in addition to $8, is your full name and Social Security number and your home address(es) for the past five years.

Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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