Who Owns This Tree?
Boundary line trees are a common concern in our industry. Each situation needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis, but there a few general guidelines that may help in understanding the issues. If any part of a trunk of a tree stands on more than one property, each property owner has equal ownership of that tree. The owners of the trees should only use their parts of the trees so as not to unreasonably injure or destroy the whole. We recommend that consent is obtained from all parties with an interest in the trees before doing anything that could damage the tree above or below ground level. If the entire trunk of a tree is on a neighboring property and the branches or roots extend onto your property you may be allowed to prune the tree with certain limitations dictated by the facts of each case.
Another related issue is when a tree from a neighboring property falls onto your property. You are responsible for cleaning up the portions of the tree that are now on your property. The exception is if you can prove that the owner of the tree was negligent in caring for it from a safety perspective. For example, if the tree was dead before it fell, the property owner should have had the tree removed. There are other structural defects that can make a tree not safe, but that is usually difficult to prove after the tree has fallen.
If you have concerns about a tree on a neighbor’s property and your neighbor does not want to remedy the situation, the best approach is to have a registered consulting arborist evaluate the tree. The arborist should be able to determine if there is a problem that could affect the safety of you and your property. We usually recommend that you work the problem out personally between you and your neighbor to maintain a civil relationship. If that is not possible, you should have the arborist write a letter describing the situation in detail. Then you should submit a certified copy to the property owner and possibly your lawyer and/or insurance company. This can shift the liability to the original tree owner.