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Don’t Go Out on a Limb Over Tree Disputes

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Disputes often arise between neighbors when trees do what they do naturally and predictably: grow.

The tree owner may be blissfully unaware that the mighty oak has crept outward as well as upward, and that it now hangs menacingly over a neighbor’s property.

The problem is often a matter of degree. A few limbs over the fence present no problem; several years later those same limbs, now huge and pressing against the garage, are quite disturbing.

The same principle applies to debris raining down from above and roots creeping underneath. A little autumn shedding is acceptable, but not clogged gutters every few days--and definitely not pipes invaded by aggressive roots.

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The law often reflects these matters of degree. For a simple inconvenience, the neighbor is usually expected to trim away any bothersome branches or roots on his or her own property. If the injury to the neighbor is more severe, the neighbor may be able to sue the tree owner.

Help from a city or utility company. A utility company, such as the telephone company, will usually trim a tree that might damage its equipment--for example, if limbs are growing into or hanging dangerously over the lines.

The city may take responsibility for trees that are on its property or that might endanger city property--for example, by obstructing a sidewalk or blocking the view at an intersection. To see if the tree is on a strip of city property, go to city hall and look at the city map.

Trimming a neighbor’s tree: the right of self-help. Property owners in every state have the right to cut off branches and roots that stray onto their property. In most states, this is the only help provided by the law, even when damage from a tree is substantial.

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A neighbor who cuts back limbs or roots of a tree belonging to someone else is not free to rev up a chain saw and prune at will. There are legal guidelines.

The neighbor:

--can trim only up to the boundary line.

--needs permission to enter the owner’s property, unless the limbs threaten to cause imminent and grave harm.

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--may not cut down the tree itself.

--cannot destroy the tree by the trimming.

A permit may be necessary in some cities for any tree trimming or for pruning certain species of trees.

As a practical matter, if you decide to trim encroaching branches or roots of a neighbor’s tree, always warn the tree owner first. The owner may well want to take responsibility for the work to assure the health and symmetry of the tree. An effective approach might be to offer to share the cost of trimming the whole tree.

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If the tree owner objects to your trimming plans, write a letter, explaining why your action is necessary and legal. Or get a lawyer to write to the neighbor. Often, a letter on a legal letterhead will get prompt attention and cooperation. Some lawyers will write a letter at your direction for about $100.

Few laws will require an owner to cut down or remove a pesky tree or shrub--unless it is diseased or somehow perched precariously enough to cause a danger to passersby. A few states, including California, Louisiana and Washington, allow a neighbor to sue a tree owner for harm caused by encroaching branches or even roots when the tree is healthy.

The underlying problem with encroaching branches and invading roots is usually the expense. Pruning a large tree can run anywhere from $300 to over $1,000. Although, in some states, the neighbor who does the trimming must pay for it, in California an owner can be forced to take this responsibility. And in Hawaii, a neighbor who faces substantial damage from a tree may have the trimming done and then demand payment for it from the tree’s owner.

Next week: Don’t fence them in.

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