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Branches, Limbs, and Roots: How to Deal with Your Neighbor’s “Tree” Problem

Last month, we explored how to deal with a neighbor who injures or destroys your landscape, specifically a tree on your property. This month, we are reviewing how to deal with a neighbor’s problematic tree. In this section, we pull from the book Neighborhood Law by attorneys Emily Doskow and Line Guillen by sharing what you as a homeowner can do about encroaching branches and roots and unsound limbs and trees.

Concerns with Trees

If you are questioning whether to pursue additional action against your neighbor, let’s review some of the most common issues homeowners have with neighboring trees.

  • The trees are being used as a fence.
  • The trees are blocking your view.
  • The trees are prohibited by law or exceed height limitations.
  • The trees are in a fire zone.
  • The trees are diseased or unsound.
  • The trees are encroaching on your property.

If you feel a tree is disturbing your peaceful living, consider taking the next steps to resolve the issue.

Determine Who Is Responsible for the Tree

The first step to every neighborly dispute is to educate yourself – learn the laws that apply, as well as your right to ensure protection throughout the process. As you conduct your research, you might discover that many cities, utility companies, and homeowner’s associations can help resolve the issue. To find out who is responsible for the tree, visit city hall and ask to see a city map.

When the City Is Responsible for the Tree

When a tree is located on city property, the city must ensure all residents’ safety and security. The city is also responsible for maintaining and trimming all landscape within public limits. Therefore, if you determine the tree is on city property, contact city officials, and they will send a professional to take care of the problem. Even if the tree is on private property, the city may be able to help if the invading branches or limbs are on public property.

When a Utility Company Is Responsible for the Tree

Safety is the priority of every utility company, so if a tree poses a danger to the community, the utility company will help fix the problem. For example, telephone and electric companies often trim trees that may damage their equipment or cut limbs growing over their lines. If this is the case, call the utility company for assistance.

When Your Neighbor Is Responsible for the Tree

If the tree is on private property and does not fall under the city’s responsibility or a utility company, here are the steps to take to resolve the matter with your neighbor.

  1. Talk with Your Neighbor

Before jumping to legal action, confront your neighbor and discuss the issue at hand. Often, simply asking your neighbor to trim a tree is enough.

However, in cases where the neighbor does not agree to do this, try taking additional steps to get them on board. For example, you might consider hiring an expert to assess the situation and then send a letter to your neighbor summarizing your request and the expert’s findings. Also, let the neighbor know that you will seek additional support to resolve the issue if action is not taken. These actions often work, especially when the problem is unsound limbs and trees. When there is a more significant problem, such as encroaching roots, you may need to take additional steps to protect your real estate.

  1. Speak to the Homeowner’s Association

If you live in a community with a homeowner’s association, the association members are responsible for abiding by the restrictions outlined in the covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs). If a neighbor’s tree violates these CC&Rs, the homeowner’s association can take the lead and work with your neighbor to trim the tree. This helps to alleviate your feeling of responsibility and any associated stress.

  1. Contact the City

City guidelines identify the rights you have as a homeowner and outline restrictions for your neighbor to follow. If your homeowner’s association is unable to help, or you do not live in a community with a homeowner’s association, contact the city; officials can help you determine how to proceed with the pending problem.

  1. Take Your Neighbor to Court

If your efforts – talking with your neighbor or contacting the city – fail to resolve the issue, you may want to take your neighbor to court. Depending on the case, you need to file a claim in either small claims court or regular court – the latter requires a lawyer. Assess your situation and determine which option is best suited for you. For example, if you’re simply asking your neighbor to trim a tree, small claims court might suffice. However, if you face foundational damage due to an encroaching limb, you should consider taking your neighbor to regular court.

If you decide to take your neighbor to court, be prepared to prove the following:

  • The tree belongs to the person being sued;
  • The branches or roots are over or under the neighbor’s property;
  • The neighbor notified the tree owner in writing; and
  • The tree adversely affects the neighbor and the degree of damage.

If your neighbor’s tree has caused any damage to your property, taking them to court is essential. Remember, your homeowner’s insurance often covers the associated costs. So, check with your insurance provider to see how the company can provide immediate assistance.

To learn how to take your neighbor to court in California, consult this checklist provided by the Judicial Branch of California.

Circumstances that Permit YOU to Trim Your Neighbor’s Tree

According to Doskow and Guillen, “Property owners in every state have the right to cut off branches and

roots that stray into their property. In most states, this is the only help provided by the law, even when damage from a tree is substantial.”

As a homeowner in California, though, you want to be careful when deciding to take action. Always warn your neighbor before cutting – give them another chance to respond to your complaint. If the homeowner is unresponsive, you can trim their trees. However, first, consider the following:

Although California law considers the encroachment of branches and roots to be a nuisance, and technically a homeowner has the right to cut these branches and roots, court cases have historically supported the homeowners whose trees were damaged.

If you cut or damage your neighbor’s tree, you may be responsible for associated fees. See last month’s article to learn more about your neighbor’s rights if you make a mistake. Remember, it is best to utilize government agencies to ensure you are protected throughout the process.

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