Cutting Down a Tree Straddling Two Owners' Properties
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A property owner generally has the right to cut all limbs, branches and roots from a tree on the property of his or her neighbor up to the property line of that owner without permission provided that the cutting and/or pruning of the limbs, branches or roots does not harm, damage or destroy the tree. The rationale for this rule in the United States is that a property owner owns all that is on his her property including matters that enter its space below or above ground within reasonable height and underground considerations. From a practical aspect, it is always best to advise one’s neighbor that the limbs, branches, or roots of a tree or shrub that is encroaching from one property to another will be pruned or cut back in order to prevent any misunderstandings or conflicts in the future between the two property owners.
A significant problem arises when there is a tree or shrub whose trunk straddles the property lines of two separate parcels owned by two separate property owners and one property owner does not want the tree removed for some reason, realistic or not. The general consensus of the case law of various states is that one property owner cannot without the consent of the other property owner unilaterally cut down a tree whose trunk straddles the property line between properties that are owned by two separate property owners. The rationale is that each property owner owns up to his or her property line all things upon it and if a tree is growing on the property line of two parcels each property owner owns the part of the whole of the tree on each respective side of the property’s boundaries. As such, in such a situation each property owner is a “tenant in common” (common owner of the tree) and cannot do anything to the tree as a whole (excepting branches or roots of the tree that grown entirely on one owner’s property) so as to damage the tree.
If one property owner cuts down the tree whose trunk straddles the property line of the neighbor, the neighbor who gave no consent for the tree’s removal would be entirely within his or her right to file a legal action for trespass and resulting damages against the property owner who removed the tree.
In many states there are statutes penalizing such unauthorized conduct with treble (three times) the amount of damages incurred as the result of the tree’s removal where such statutes may also award reasonable attorneys fees to the person who was damaged. California has a statute allowing treble damages and attorney fees for the unlawful removal of timber albeit the statute does not deal with a tree truck straddling two separate properties.
In the event there is a situation where a tree trunk straddles two separate properties and one property owner wants to remove this tree, it is best to have a signed and dated agreement with the other property owner allowing the tree’s removal to prevent any misunderstandings and a possible lawsuit over the tree’s removal.