Disputes between neighbors involving trees are unfortunately quite common. Fear that a neighbor’s tree will fall onto your house during a windstorm may be reasonably well justified; alternatively, otherwise minor tree issues can cause simmering mistrust or anger between neighbors to boil over.
Here’s a brief review of your rights relating to a tree or roots that cross the property line.
If your neighbor’s tree is not shown to be a hazard
Most trees along property lines are not a hazard. By hazardous, we’re referring to trees that have visible outward signs of being damaged, dead or dying. Think of rotting trees, ones with obvious insect infestations. This could also include trees that were damaged by a windstorm or other weather event. As a property owner, you have a duty to take reasonable care of trees on your property. That means regularly inspecting them for disease or other conditions that may render them hazardous. If you fail in this duty, you could be deemed to be negligent in the event your tree (or its branches) fall into your neighbor’s yard.
If your neighbor’s tree (or branches) falls onto your property and is not shown to have been a hazard, the neighbor will not be deemed negligent. It would be your obligation to clean up your neighbor’s healthy but fallen tree. In addition, you must give your neighbor the opportunity to claim their wood! If your neighbor’s tree falls onto your property, call an arborist to inspect the tree and advise if it was defective and if the neighbor should have been aware of its condition.
If your neighbor’s tree or shrubs overhang into your yard
You may cut branches of a tree or shrub located on your neighbor’s property to the extent they encroach (or overhang) into your property. In doing so, you are not liable for damage caused to the tree. In addition, you can seek reimbursement for the expense from your neighbor. This was the holding in the 1993 Pennsylvania Superior Court case of Jones v. Wagner, which involved a claim for damages to trees which were cut by a neighboring property owner.
While their neighbors were on vacation, Wagner trimmed the branches of 26 Hemlock trees to the extent that the branches hung over the property line. In response, Jones filed suit seeking the replacement value of each of the 26 trees that Wagner trimmed back, a combined figure of approximately $31,000 (1993 Dollars). In rejecting the damage claim, the Court wrote as follows:
… we conclude that Pennsylvania law affords a full panoply of remedies to a landowner whose property is encroached by overhanging branches or tree limbs. First, an aggrieved landowner is entitled to exercise a self-help remedy by either trimming or lopping off the branches to the extent his property is encroached. Second, if the landowner has incurred reasonable expenses in the course of exercising a self-help remedy, he may recoup those expenses from the trespasser. Third, he may, on a trespass theory, seek equitable relief compelling the trespassing neighbor to remove the trees to the extent of the encroachment and seek appropriate incidental and consequential damages. We emphasize that Pennsylvania law requires no showing of physical harm or damage to the land before a possessor of land can enforce his right to freely enjoy unencumbered and exclusive use of property he rightfully possesses. Since appellees in this case were only exercising their right to trim the branches and limbs of appellants’ encroaching trees, they may not be held liable in damages for doing so.
From a practical standpoint, there is the law and then there are the realities of living in peace next to your neighbor. We always suggest that you talk to your neighbor about overhanging branches before taking any action. Ask your neighbor to remove them. If they are unwilling or unable to do so, ask them if they mind if you trim them back. Unless there is a significant expense to you, we do not normally suggest sending your neighbor an invoice for the work.
If your neighbor’s tree is a hazard
If the hazard tree is along your property line, but is your neighbor’s tree, notify them immediately and request they remove or otherwise address the hazard. If they refuse to do so, you can hire an arborist to remove the portion of the tree that overhangs your property. You can then require your neighbor to reimburse you for the cost. If all or any portion of a hazard tree falls on your property, and your neighbor was aware of or should have known that it was dangerous, your neighbor is responsible for any damage that you suffered, including your cost of removal.
If the dead or dying tree is directly on the property line
In this case, you jointly own the tree with your neighbor and you are empowered to both share the cost of the tree’s removal.
In subsequent cases the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that invading tree roots from the neighbor’s tree also constitute a trespass. And, as with the Wagner decision mentioned above, this type of trespass presents the trespassed neighbor with self-help and other remedies. This has specific application to situations where roots from a neighbor’s tree extend over a property line. In Pennsylvania there is now clear authority for the invaded property owner to retain a contractor to remove the roots and charge the cost of removal against the neighbor.
Can your neighbor’s roots under your property give rise to an easement on your property?
In 2003, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court was asked to determine if tree roots or branches could create an easement by prescription. In Koresko v. Farely, the plaintiff sought injunctive relief to prevent a neighbor from installing a water line which required cutting the root system of trees located on plaintiff’s property. They argued that because the roots had encroached for more than 21 years, an easement by prescription (similar to adverse possession) was created on the neighbor’s property where the tree roots extended – and that cutting of the roots would thus constitute an unreasonable interference with that easement. However, the Commonwealth Court held that roots cannot create an easement by prescription. It thus follows that tree roots and branches create continuing trespasses as they grow – and that the duration of their presence is not relevant. The trespassing branches or roots causing the trespass onto the neighbor’s property may thus be abated at any time, regardless of how long the trees have been there.
Fiffik Law Group, PC provides a full range of services to residential and commercial property owners, including disputes over boundary lines. Contact our experienced real estate attorneys today.