Trees and The Law

Who’s tree is it? And what are my responsibilities?


Do you own that tree? Do I own that tree? Does the city own the tree? There are many laws, statutes and ordinances in place that dictate what you can do and should do to your trees and navigating the legality of tree maintenance can sometimes be tricky…


Disclaimer: This article is to help you understand your rights and obligations as a tree owner and should be used solely as guidance. This is not prepared or reviewed by a lawyer and one should be consulted before any legal action is pursued. 


First things first, you have to own the tree to have rights to it. Sounds silly but do you know exactly where your property boundaries are? We find that many people have an idea but don't exactly know. To know definitively, a legal survey can be done to ensure you in fact are the owner of that property and tree. If the tree is yours you have the right to protect it from trespass. This means without your permission an individual can’t prune or remove a tree that is solely on and over your property.  The exception to this is when a municipality orders a tree to be pruned or removed due to hazard condition or spreadable tree disease. 


As a tree owner you have the responsibility or duty of care as determined by the principals of neglect. This means you have to take care of your trees in a reasonable fashion. So what is reasonable care? You must inspect your trees regularly for hazards. If a hazard is identified you must remove the hazard to prevent injury or damage. If you do not inspect your trees regularly or ignore obvious hazards and your tree causes injury, damage, or death, you may be held liable.  But, if there is no reasonable identified hazard and a tree or part fails it may be considered an act of God.


All trees shed small debris annually, usually in the form of flowers, seeds, leaves and twigs. This small debris is a general nuisance, considered natural, and not the responsibility of the tree owner. This rule is intended not to overburden the courts with cases of leaves blowing into neighbor’s yards.  Fruit trees are a little different. Fruit from trees can't be picked even if it's over your yard until it falls, but there is still some debate over that in the court system.


Now if a tree is in between properties, rights become more complicated. The best action for these trees begins with a friendly conversation amongst neighbors. We find that a lot of neighbor animosity is the result of activities that take place without prior discussion. Always try to talk to your neighbors if you think a tree is in between properties.


If a tree trunk grows over the property line, the tree is referred to as a boundary, or shared tree.  This means the tree regardless of how much of the trunk is over the line is property held in common. It's both parties tree equally. As such both parties have to be in agreement to the removal of the tree.  This is the case even if at a young age the tree was clearly on one side of the property line.  As it grew, it became a shared tree.   Pruning responsibilities are shared by both parties, depending upon which parts of the canopy are over each property.


A tree trunk that is wholly on a neighboring property with branches extending into your property can be pruned to the property bounty as long as the tree is not subjected to unreasonable injury. Unreasonable injury is hard to quantify and may be at the discretion of the court system. If a tree is pruned poorly, leading to decline of the tree, you may be liable.  That is why it is always best to have a knowledgeable professional do this work.


The same rules apply to tree roots as they do to tree branches. Often forgotten about because they are below ground but tree roots often extend though many neighboring yards. Roots can be pruned as needed if they extend over a property boundary, as long as the cutting does not subject the tree to unreasonable injury. Again this is important that you don't chop all the roots of a neighboring tree at the property line because if it kills the tree or causes it to fall you may be held liable. It is reasonable that the neighboring tree’s roots do not cause harm to your property, like your foundation, or pipes and they can be pruned at your expense. Just remember, roots provide the tree with structural support and the ability to absorb essential nutrients and removing these might harm or destabilize the tree. Again, it is best to consult a knowledgeable professional.           


Every now and then we get a call about a tree that belongs to the city, village or town.  Often trees that fall within the right of way are maintained by the municipality.  In some communities this is clearly defined, such as trees growing in between the sidewalk and street.  In other places, municipal right-of-ways are not as obvious.  Municipal ordinances and maintenance practices are different for each community. If you have a question on whether a tree is on your property or not, it would be wise to consult with your municipality before any pruning/removal work. 


Over the years, Hoppe Tree Service has worked on a lot of trees in numerous communities and we are knowledgeable with many municipal practices.  We have also dealt with numerous property border trees and have practical experience facilitating neighborly discussions regarding encroaching trees and best management practices.  We understand the legal rights and also understand the practicality of working with neighbor’s and trees to make the best out of a situation. 




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