With the recent high winds in Boise and the subsequent falling of many trees and tree limbs, I’ve been looking at the law related to tree ownership and rights of neighbors regarding trees.
Ownership: If you own land, and a tree’s trunk is entirely on your land, then you own that tree, too. The key is the trunk — not the canopy or roots. Even if most of the canopy or roots extend off your land, the tree is still yours. Where the tree straddles a boundary line, it becomes the shared property of you and the neighbor.
Maintenance: What are the rights of a neighbor to trim the canopy or roots of someone else’s tree? If a tree stretches its canopy or roots over or under the neighbor’s property, the neighbor has the right to remove those roots and limbs, up to the property line. However, if trimming causes significant damage to the health of the tree (not its aesthetics), the trimming neighbor could have to pay the tree owner for that damage. So if you are the neighbor doing the trimming, you need to be careful not to damage the tree in the process, or risk paying for the value of the tree. A little bit of trimming here or there should be fine, but major work should be undertaken with care.
With boundary trees, either neighbor can trim the parts of the tree on their property. However, a real issue arises when one neighbor wants to remove the tree and the other neighbor doesn’t. The general presumption is that the tree stays unless it poses a “nuisance” to one neighbor. An example might be where a tree’s roots are about to damage a foundational wall of a building. In that case, the neighbor wanting to remove the tree can (with a court’s involvement if necessary) remove it with contribution from the neighbor.
Liability for damage caused by the tree: The normal rule for damage caused by a tree (whether owned by one person or shared by neighbors) is that each person pays for his or her own damages. In other words, if a limb from someone’s tree falls on the neighbor’s house, it is the neighbor’s homeowner’s insurance that pays.
An exception to this rule, however, is where the owner of the tree was on notice that the tree posed a particular hazard and the owner did nothing to fix that hazard. If, for example, a branch has cracked and is hanging precariously, the owner of the tree needs to remove the branch or else will be liable for damage when the broken branch ultimately falls to the ground.
So if someone is concerned about a neighbor’s tree but the tree is not overhanging the boundary line, one step he can take is to mail a letter (with return receipt) that politely (but clearly) informs the neighbor of the concern and the basis for the concern. The letter should ask the neighbor to either fix the problem or remove the tree. Although this won’t force the neighbor to do anything, it at least would serve as some evidence that the neighbor knew and failed to act if the tree ultimately causes damage.
Trees, fences, driveways, noise, and all sorts of other issues can cause friction between neighbors. Understanding your rights and responsibilities can help to ease this tension. But perhaps the most important step in negotiating these issues is to get to know your neighbors before there is a problem, so that you can communicate with each other when a problem develops.