What rights does a homeowner have when a neighbor’s tree branch hangs over the property line?
When a neighbors tree branch is over hanging an adjoining property line, the adjoining property owner has an absolute right to cut the branch up to the property line. Courts have upheld that a homeowner’s tree rights extend indefinitely upward on his property line, and those rights are protected from invasion by an adjoining landowner.
This seems fairly stated yet brings up two important questions. Does the property owner have the right to take the law into his own hands and remove a neighbor’s tree branch which overhangs his property? What is the homeowners tree responsibility? This is where all the confusion and misinterpretations begin.
As an arborist/climber I have literally been directly in the middle of the fence between two indifferent neighbors over tree boundary issues. It’s not pretty.
To understand homeowner tree responsibility one must understand that the homeowner has a “generalized duty of care” in relation to trees growing on his property. Tree owners must maintain their trees in such a way as to prevent injury to a neighbors property. For example, if a landowner has a tree branch that has been steadily increasing the lean over his neighbors house (which the neighbor has pointed out many times) over a period of years and the branch finally falls on his neighbors house, he is liable for damages. The tree owner knew about the increasing branch lean and did not mitigate the problem.
It is very important to understand that landowners with trees on their property are held to a degree of liability for their trees not to cause damage to neighboring property. They must maintain the health and structural stability of their trees. On the other side of the fence, a neighbor should not take the law into his own hands and try to mitigate a neighboring tree issue. Here is where the “Good Neighbor Policy” and the “Generalized Duty of Care” come into view.
The “Good Neighbor Policy” means that a reasonable form of communication between two reasonable persons is first initiated to solve a property line tree issue. A neighbor can first tell the owner that his tree branch is leaning towards his house and is concerned that the branch may cause significant damage if it were to fail. He can politely ask permission from the tree owner to remove an over hanging branch before he attempts to remove the overhanging branch himself. If the tree owner does not provide the “Generalized Duty of Care” then the neighbor needs to contact a Certified Arborist, government agency or lawyer that will step in to help mitigate the property line issues. All forms of communication should be documented and photographed for future reference. It is up to the courts or mediation process to make a decision. What is important is that both parties have behaved as “Good Neighbors” and the tree owner has provided the “Generalized Duty of Care”.
Final notes: There is difference in liability for trees that are of natural growth on the property compared to trees planted on the property by the landowner or landowner’s predecessor. In some court cases landowners are not held liable for damages caused from trees on their property from natural growth if they appear structurally sound and healthy. The tree owner can use the “Act of God” defense. However, if the damage caused by a falling tree or branch could have been prevented by reasonable diligence or ordinary care the tree owner cannot use the “Act of God” defense.
A good place to view past events concerning neighbors efforts to remove neighbors branches/trees is on the Berkeley Parents Network. Here you can view both sides of a well-defined tree boundary issue and make your own assessment on who is right and who is in the wrong.
In the 1994 case of Booska v. Patel, a California appellate court held that a neighbor does not have the absolute right to cut encroaching roots and branches so that they end at his or her property line. You must take into account the health of the tree before you start cutting or chopping. Click here to read the 1994 case of Booska v. Patel