Tree Care and Property Lines Part 1: Crossing the Line

Tree - Tree removal

Several times per month, Cumberland Valley Tree Service – Landscaping gets the call to come out and assist with clearing storm damage. We have over 30 years of experience safely removing trees from houses, cars, fences and utility wires, and we take utmost care to preserve your property and respect property lines even when the job requires aerial lift trucks and cranes.

Your Neighbor’s Tree

In fact, many of our relationships with clients started with a phone call asking for help:

A tree fell on my house.” “A tree fell on my car.” “A tree fell on my backyard.”

However, the situation becomes more complicated when a single word is added:

“A neighbor’s tree fell on my house.” “A neighbor’s tree fell on my car.” “A neighbor’s tree fell on my backyard.”

The clean-up process is the same, but when we’re done they’ll often ask us to send the bill to their neighbor and let the neighbor’s homeowner’s insurance cover it.

After all, it is the neighbor’s tree, right?

Unfortunately, that homeowner is about to get even more bad news.

Property lines go from ground-to-sky, which means you own the vertical air space around your property.

At some point – mid-fall – that tree crossed the invisible property line, and the neighbor’s tree became your tree. On your house. Causing your damage that goes against your deductible. It is no longer – legally speaking – your neighbor’s concern. In fact, once any part of your neighbor’s tree crosses that line onto your property, it is now your responsibility, whether it is branches, leaves, seeds or even the entire tree.

Insurance companies typically classify a neighbor’s tree falling onto your property as “act of God,” which is why the responsibility – like the tree – also falls on you instead of the owner of the tree.

As a homeowner, if your neighbor’s tree drops leaves onto your property, you can’t rake them or blow them back across. If a limb is blown onto your property, you can’t cut it up and toss it back over the line. Any acorn, black walnut or pine needle that falls onto your side is your responsibility. In fact, doing so can result in criminal mischief charges because it can be considered littering and/or harassment in some repeated cases.

Take Advantage of the Calm Before the Storm

There are some exceptions to this rule that generally deal with cases of negligence. If it can be demonstrated before the incident that the tree is a hazard, and the neighbor is notified beforehand that the tree is a high risk-tree, then there might be a case.

Ideally, this decision should be made by an ISA-Certified Arborist, and we can put it down in writing that the safest course of action is the removal of the tree or a more aggressive trimming of the tree. We then recommend that you send it to your neighbor as a certified letter (which requires a signature) so that there is documentation that the neighbor has been notified of the situation.

Hopefully that will be the wake-up call they need to remedy the situation. But, even then, no one can force the neighbor to take action, and we can’t step onto their property without permission.

However, If the worst-case scenario does occur, that paper trail will make it easier to hold the neighbor responsible.

Without proof of negligence, the neighbor isn’t legally obligated to help you repair your damaged property caused by your newly acquired tree.

The good news is that you don’t have to wait until after storm damage occurs to contact us. As ISA-Certified Arborists, we can assess the situation now and find a solution that is best for you, your neighbor and the tree.

Property Lines and Lines of Communication

Storm damage is just one example of how trees and property lines can cause headaches for neighbors.

In Part 2, we will examine how “ground-to-sky” rules affect branches and roots that cross property lines while they are still attached. In Part 3, we will discuss how maintaining open communication with your neighbor can avoid many of the legal hassles and achieve an outcome that is best for you, your neighbor and the tree.