If you’re wondering who owns the tree that hangs over both your property and your neighbor’s property, look at the trunk. If the trunk is on your property, it’s your responsibility. If the trunk is on your neighbor’s property, it is their responsibility. If the trunk is on the property line, you share responsibility.
Shrubbery or trees whose trunks stand partly on the land of two adjacent property owners belong to the adjacent owners as tenants in common: these trees are called “line trees” or “common boundary trees.” Both parties are responsible for maintaining trees and the co-owners cannot interfere with each other’s use of trees. And though it may not be legally required, I highly recommend discussing any significant changes with your neighbor.
Just like other common property issues such as fences and shared walls of condominiums, it’s important to have some agreements in place. This eliminates hard feelings that can lead to arguments and even court appearances down the road. In the case of a 100-acre property in Potter Valley where the closest house is 500 yards from the property line and the common boundary tree trunk is only four inches in diameter, having an agreement isn’t too important. But in a subdivision like Alexander Estates by Ukiah High School, a big, beautiful maple tree that provides shade for your patio becomes a lot more valuable, and having agreements that protect the tree are essential.
The basic rule of thumb for common boundary trees is that you cannot do anything on your side of the property line that would significantly damage the whole tree. For example, you cannot prune so many branches that the tree can no longer stand. That said, trees don’t live forever. They can get sick and lose branches and eventually die, just like the rest of us. If a tree poses a safety hazard or a nuisance, either from falling branches or because the whole tree could come down, the owner at risk can take action.
Legally, the owner at risk can do so without asking anyone for permission. However, it is vastly superior to talk to your neighbor beforehand because if your neighbor disagrees with your assessment, you could find yourself in court trying to prove that the tree posed a significant hazard. I recommend having an arborist inspect the tree so all can agree that the tree should come down.
If the tree is healthy but needs pruning, you’re welcome to take care of branches on your side of the property line. If the branch originates on your side of the property line, you can prune it at the base. If the branch originates on your neighbor’s side of the property line, you can prune it where it hits the property line. Be aware that if the branches you prune land on your neighbor’s property, it’s up to you to clean them up. Personally, I would talk to an attorney before cutting branches that extend very far onto a neighbor’s property. Keep in mind that the right to cut encroaching or overhanging branches is constrained by a duty to act reasonably.
Generally speaking, trees add value to a property, but sometimes they cause expensive problems. I live on a 10-acre parcel with several beautiful oak trees next to a vineyard. On two occasions, my trees have fallen across the property line, knocking down my neighbor’s fence and taking out vines. When that happened, I paid to have the trees cut and removed, to repair fencing, and to replace the vines. The trees appeared healthy right up to the moment when they fell down.
If you own an investment property and a tenant or neighbor complains about a tree on your property, pay attention. Hire an arborist to inspect the tree. Address concerns promptly, whether that means pruning branches or removing a diseased tree. This may be inconvenient and/or expensive, but it is far better than having someone get hurt or dealing with the property damage from a fallen tree.
If you have questions about property management or real estate, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery.