Terry Jessop & Bitner Newsletter

Issue 15, November 2014

English poet William Blake once said, “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” Real estate disputes often involve trees. Neighbors bicker about who owns them and who is liable if they are damaged or cause damage. Here are some helpful tips to avoid these arboreal conflicts.

Does my neighbor have to rake up his leaves which blow into my yard?

No. The travel of leaves, twigs, branches, needles, and other tree litter onto adjoining lots is a natural condition. In 1954, the Utah Supreme Court said that to order tree owners to prevent such natural occurrences would “condemn to abolition all shade trees in communities sufficiently settled to have perils of such experiences . . . and our communities would revert to blistering, windswept desert.” Cannon v. Neuberger, 268 P.2d 425 (Utah 1954).

If branches hang over my yard, can I trim them?

In general, yes. Property rights extend up into the sky and down into the earth. If a tree branch crosses into that space, you may prune it to prevent the encroachment. But be careful that your pruning does not injure or kill the tree, or else your neighbor may seek monetary damages from you. Avoid such pruning when fruit is growing on the tree.

What if someone cuts down or kills my tree?

In Utah, if a person cuts down or injures a tree, he can be held liable for three times the value of the tree. (Utah Code § 78B-6-1002.) It may cost between $30 and $3,000 to replace a common tree. Large, special trees may be worth $30,000 or more.

Who owns the tree that sits on my property line?

Usually, a tree’s owner is determined by the location of the base of the trunk, regardless of where the branches extend. If 100% of the base of the trunk sits on your property, you own it. If the trunk sits on the property line, both property owners share ownership and responsibility for the tree. In that case, you may not remove it without your neighbor’s consent.

Can I pick the fruit that hangs over onto my side of the property line?

No. The fruit produced by a tree is owned by the owner of the tree, whether the fruit is hanging across the property line or not. This is why it is risky to prune back an encroaching limb when the tree is producing fruit. However, under Utah law, there is no clear answer as to who is entitled to gather fruit that has fallen from a tree onto neighboring property.

Can the city and/or utility company trim my trees?

Yes. If a tree on your property interferes with safety or reliability of utility service, the utility company can trim or remove the tree. Likewise, if you have a tree which threatens public safety, the city can trim your tree and bill you for the expense. Be careful of trees that obstruct drivers’ vision of road signs or other vehicles. Such trees may violate city ordinances, and the tree owner may be sued if the obstruction causes an accident.

What can I do if my neighbor’s tree damages my property?

It depends. Usually a court will use a reasonable care standard to determine liability. If it is reasonably foreseeable that a dead tree will fall over and damage a neighbor’s home or fence, the neighbor may recover from the tree owner.

Whether trees move you to tears of joy or stand as green things in your way, we can help you determine your property rights and responsibilities.

©Terry Jessop & Bitner November 2014