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 Trees, Shrubs, or Fences Along Property Lines

Tree law might seem like a mysterious subtopic of the legal system, but it’s remarkably prevalent. It is essential to be mindful of the regulations surrounding trees in and around your property. Maintaining trees is pricey, but dealing with the aftermath of tree falls can be more costly. Here’s how to legally address trees on or near your property lines.

Tree law is a branch of the legal system that concentrates on conflicts about trees. These are often between neighbors and concentrate on how trees grow along property lines. All tree law regulations are localized – usually set by the state, but the county or city often has laws as well. Some policies are generally followed in most areas regarding tree ownership and responsibility.

Property lines are the borders that separate one portion of land from another. Landowners often desire to arrange a tree, shrub, or fence on or around their property line as a way to specify the edge of their property. However, doing so can cause property line altercations.

Property line conflicts typically occur between neighboring property owners when there is uncertainty about the precise location of the property line or when trees, shrubs, or fences along property lines become a mess or a danger.

One of the best ways to avoid a legal dispute over trees is to use caution and follow all local regulations regarding planting trees near property lines. In general, if any part of the tree’s trunk is on your property, you are the owner. So, if a tree sits on a property line, it’s deemed common property, and you are both owners. For this reason, you cannot legally plant a tree on the property line without consent from your neighbor. It’s soundest to plant trees 3 – 4 feet from all property lines to leave space for future expansion.

What If My Neighbor and I Disagree on the Location of the Property Line?

If a neighbor plants a tree on your property line and you don’t want it, the soundest thing to do is talk to them. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t realize the tree interferes with your space or could cause a long-term problem. Trees are often costly, and your neighbor might think that they are doing you a favor by “giving” you a tree.

Property lines are invisible, so it is prevalent for some uncertainty to exist as to where precisely the legal property line is. The only way to know the exact location of a property line is to check the official “plat map” or conduct a property survey.

A plat map is a detailed map showing property lines and exact measurements for pieces of land near each other. Plat maps are recorded at the courthouse for public use and found online for many counties.

On the other hand, a property survey is a detailed map usually displaying a single piece of property and the location of the improvements relative to the property’s boundaries. Surveys are generally only for the personal use of the landowner.

Based on a plat map or property survey, you should be able to reveal whether the location of a border or a line of trees or shrubs correctly mirrors the actual property lines. You will also be able to tell which property each tree, shrub, or fence actually lies in and, therefore, who owns and is accountable for each one.

What If a Tree, Shrub, or Fence is Near the Property Line?

Each property owner is, of course, liable for maintaining a tree, shrub, or fence located on their property. Still, disagreements can arise when a tree or shrub is close enough to a property line that branches overhang or roots grow underground into a neighbor’s property.

Each tree, shrub, or fence owner is required to take reasonable care to conduct the proper supervision to prevent them from causing damage to a neighbor’s property or from becoming a nuisance and interfering with the neighbor’s ability to enjoy their property.

For example, branches from a tree that overhang a neighbor’s property can pose a hazard to their house if the tree is damaged or dying. The roots from a tree or shrub that grows underneath a neighbor’s property can damage their sewer lines or disrupt their pavement or foundation.

Likewise, a fence that has fallen into disrepair may pose a danger of falling onto and damaging a neighbor’s property, or an overgrown shrub may prevent a neighbor from being able to use their driveway. It is important to note that leaves falling from one person’s tree onto another person’s property are not considered a nuisance, as a tree shedding its leaves is natural, inevitable, and not under any control of the tree owner.

It is always soundest to discuss matters with a neighbor first. Still, a property owner has the freedom to trim branches from a neighbor’s tree that overhang their property, as well as the right to cut and extract roots from a neighbor’s tree or shrub that are interfering with improvements on the property when necessary to prevent property damage. However, a property owner that wishes to do so is responsible for the cost of the trimming and will be responsible if irreparable damage is done to the tree/shrub as a result of the trimming.

Property Damage Resulting from a Tree, Shrub, or Fence Near the Property Line

The party liable for property damage from a tree, shrub, or fence near a property line will depend on the circumstances under which the damage transpired. Usually, a tree owner will be accountable for the damage done to a neighbor’s property by their tree only if the damage was foreseeable and preventable.

For example, if a windstorm or blizzard causes a tree branch from one property owner’s tree to fall onto a neighbor’s roof, the tree owner will not be held accountable for the damages. The neighbor whose roof was damaged would need to file a claim with their homeowner’s insurance in a situation like this.

On the other hand, if a tree that overhangs a neighbor’s property has been dead or a fence has been near falling over for years, and the neighbor has requested that the tree or fence owner remove the tree or fence, then the tree or fence owner will likely be liable for the damage when the dead tree limb or damaged fence inevitably falls onto their neighbor’s property.

What If a Tree, Shrub, or Fence is Right on the Property Line?

When a tree or shrub is found directly on the property line, each neighboring property owner is accountable for maintenance on their side of the property line. For a fence built right on a property line, the property owner who erected the fence will be accountable for maintenance and upkeep.

However, an exception may occur if both neighbors have their yard enclosed by a fence and the fence panels on the property line between the properties are shared.

Should I Talk to a Lawyer About Tree and Shrubs on Boundary Lines?

Trees and shrubs along a boundary line (and disputes concerning them) are very commonplace, but they carry more legal responsibilities than most property owners are aware of. Few conflicts are unresolvable or severe enough to require legal action, and neighbors can often come to an understanding without legal intervention.

However, in cases where you are unable to get in contact with a neighboring landowner to discuss an issue, or when a neighbor is refusing to pay for foreseeable damages caused to your property, it may be in your best interest to contact a real estate lawyer.

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