Palos Verdes homeowners love their views. View preservation is essential to retain the value of their property. It is not unusual for a dispute between neighbors to arise over trimming trees. The following is a synopsis of the legal ramifications of going wild with your chainsaw or ax without your neighbor's consent.
These hot tips on handling tree and view issues with neighboring property owners just in from our legal counsel:
Trees - Natural or Nuisance?
Trees are a wonderful part of our everyday scenery and can provide shade and beauty to a property. However, if the tree is in the wrong location, it can be disturbing or even disastrous to the property and/or to the neighbor. In general, you are the master of your domain; therefore, you can plant what you want, where you want or you can trim what you want, how you want. However, there are other duties that counter those general rights which have to do with the effect that your actions have on your neighbors. Here are a few tips as a property owner and the neighbor of a property with a tree or other large landscape.
1. Who owns the tree is determined by the tree's trunk. If the trunk is entirely on one lot, that owner owns it. If it spreads across two lots, both owners own it, jointly. Civil Code Sections 833 and 834.
2. As a tree owner, you have a duty to maintain your landscaping so that it is not dangerous for others nor creating a dangerous condition.
3. You can be liable for damage to a neighbor's property if your tree is negligently cared for such that it becomes a danger to those around you.
1. You may trim anything that crosses your property line; however, the 1994 court in Booska v. Patel said you cannot do so negligently. That is, you cannot affect the integrity or otherwise interfere with the health of the tree. In fact, there is an earlier case that states that you cannot actually trim anything until there is actual damage, not merely nuisance; although that case is generally deemed inapplicable since a neighbor should not have to suffer actual damage before being allowed to remove a tree limb or trim back overhanging shrubs.
2. You may not cross over the property line in order to cut any portion of a neighbor's tree. You can be fined if you unlawfully cut a neighbor's tree or damage it (e.g. causing disease or instability) or have to replace the tree with an identical or substantially similar tree (i.e. a mature tree). Triple damages can be fined if it was intentional and only double damages if it is accidental. Civil Code Section 3346.
How do you handle uncooperative neighbors who will not keep the trees and landscaping trimmed? If a neighbor is not being cooperative in trimming landscaping that is coming across the property line, you (or your attorney) can send a certified mail letter to the neighbor putting them on notice that a dangerous condition exists regarding the landscaping and that if the landscaping causes any injury (personal or property), the neighbor will be liable for all damages. Include in the letter an additional request that the landscaping be trimmed so that it no longer encroaches over the property line.
Before cutting or trimming someone else's tree or landscaping, be sure to weigh the nuisance effect to you versus the damage you will cause to the tree. The court will apply a reasonableness standard to your actions in determining liability. Therefore, you should prune and shape carefully!
Holly M. Thomas
RE/MAX Palos Verdes Realty
I would also add that an ounce of prevention will save thousands of dollars in tree trimming fees, or heaven forbid court and attorney fees. The value of a view is priceless to many Palos Verdes Peninsula residents. Consult with a landscape professional before planting trees to ensure your view, and that of your neighbor, will not be obstructed by future growth.
I know of one case that lingered unresolved for years. Finally, the trees were trimmed, and everyone was happy except the homeowner who missed the privacy the towering pines provided.
Rules and local codes are subject to change. Check with your attorney and local officials before reaching for your chainsaw!
Norma Toering & Team RE/MAX Palos Verdes Realty
(310) 493-8333 / Office Phone: (310) 831-0800
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