Branching Out: Navigating Neighborly Tree Disputes
October 13th, 2023
Contributor: Laura Dang
Tree disputes are more common among neighbors than one might expect. Common tree disputes include branches overhanging fences, an aggressive root invasion, or overgrown trees blocking off views. When neighbors refuse to cooperate and address these grievances, you may be left wondering about remedies and rights you have to prevent further damage and eliminate the annoyance.
California has well-established statutes and laws to deal with these types of scenarios. First and foremost, it is important to know who owns the tree in question. Under California law, the owner of a tree is the one upon whose land the trunk of the tree sits, regardless of whether the tree’s roots or branches extend onto someone else’s property. In other words, if the tree trunk is entirely on your neighbor’s property, then it belongs to your neighbor. The tree can also sit on the boundary line, meaning it belongs to both you and your neighbor. It could also be neither yours nor your neighbor’s. If it sits between the sidewalk and the street, in a street median, or public park then it is considered a “City tree” and the City is responsible for the maintenance and/or removal of the tree.
If it is your neighbor’s tree and its branches or roots extend upon your property, then in some cases, you may remove them, but only to where the boundary line lies. You are entitled to invoke the concept of self-help in this situation to trim those imposing branches or cut and restrict roots from entering your property. However, this does not entitle you to trespass onto your neighbor’s land or reach over the property line to cut any part of the tree that is on your neighbor’s property. Additionally, you must exercise reasonable care in trimming or cutting the limbs or roots of the tree if it will cause serious damage to the remainder of the tree. Your right to self-help will be weighed against your obligation not to damage your neighbor’s property.
Wrongfully cutting your neighbor’s tree will make you liable for damages for the injury to the tree and potential diminution in the market value of your neighbor’s property. The monetary amount awarded may either be the cost to replace the tree or the reduction in the market value of the tree owner’s property. That number is tripled if the act was done intentionally and doubled if the act was done accidentally or with a reasonable or mistaken belief that it was on your land. If the person cutting the tree relied on a survey from a licensed surveyor, then the damages are actual damages.
While you as a landowner have the right to cut off overhanging branches of a neighbor's tree or encroaching roots, compelling the owner of the tree to remove the encroachment themselves can only be accomplished under nuisance statutes. Trees can constitute a nuisance if they interfere with your right to enjoy your own property. As a landowner, you are entitled to the right of quiet enjoyment of your property and your neighbor can be held liable for engaging in a private nuisance due to the tree’s interference with it. As the prevailing party in a private nuisance suit, you may be entitled to injunctive relief meaning that the court will order your neighbor to abate the nuisance and remove the encroachment. The court may also award you monetary damages that include costs necessary to repair or clean your property and other costs associated with damage caused by the tree.
Each case is fact specific and will also depend on your local jurisdiction as there are oftentimes ordinances that vary from one place to the next. For example, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland have tree dispute resolution ordinances relating to tree view obstruction by adjoining landowners. San Francisco’s ordinance provides property owners with the right to restore their lost views due to tree growth on an adjoining property. Remedies include tree-topping and thinning, pruning, and even removal.
If you have tree disputes on a property, contact us at your convenience to request a consultation.
Neither this website nor this post are intended to create an attorney-client relationship.
Categories: Real Estate Litigation