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Dec. 3, 2022

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Change of perspective: Assess property, talk with neighbors about trees, issues

By , Columbian staff writer
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"So many problems between neighbors can be avoided with a little proactive pruning," said arborist Frank Krawczyk of PNW Tree Consulting.
"So many problems between neighbors can be avoided with a little proactive pruning," said arborist Frank Krawczyk of PNW Tree Consulting. (Frank Krawczyk/PNW Tree Consulting) Photo Gallery

Trees aren’t lawyers. They just don’t care about property lines. This was recently drawn to my attention by a politely irked neighbor, whose tree complaint prompted me to look around my property — and look up at my tree canopy — with fresh eyes.

Arborists aren’t lawyers either. Nor are they mediators, social workers or your neighborhood complaint department. But arborists are regularly asked to assume such roles when hearing about trees whose limbs extend past fence lines and litter neighboring properties.

“Sometimes people love their neighbors’ trees and sometimes they really hate them,” said Robin Clifton of TreeWise Professional Tree Service in Vancouver. “Unfortunately, some people can get downright irate.”

Complaints, concerns and questions about overhanging limbs and the leaves they drop are matters frequently fielded by Charles Ray, Vancouver’s urban forester.

“First, I tell folks I am not a lawyer so I cannot give legal advice,” Ray said.

The value of trees

One of Vancouver Urban Forester Charles Ray’s chief missions is protecting and expanding the city’s tree canopy — which simply means the total amount of tree coverage between ground and sky — from its current 19 percent to 28 percent.

Those are overall averages of all city land. The average target for residential areas is higher: 33 percent coverage by tree canopy.

Cities and other jurisdictions all around the globe are planting, nurturing and protecting trees as if their well-being depends on it — because it does.

More trees equal healthier, more sustainable communities in myriad ways starting with property values and sidewalk appeal. Merchants know that tree-lined business districts attract more customers; real estate agents know that leafy neighborhoods command higher prices than bare ones. According to the University of Washington’s urban forestry program, big trees on private parcels can raise property values as much as 15 percent (while parcels near “naturalistic parks and open spaces” enjoy a value bump of as much as 20 percent).

Trees also play a key role during this era of climate change and dramatic weather events. Trees buffer heat and wind, and have been shown to reduce home heating and cooling costs dramatically. Trees are proven oases of cool relief in the urban “heat islands” where buildings and roads hold the sun’s heat.

Trees stabilize soil and reduce erosion and flooding by catching rainfall before it hits the ground, or drinking it up afterward. The average tree also absorbs 10 pounds of pollutants from the air per year while pumping out 260 pounds of oxygen. Trees provide habitat for birds and animals.

And, trees make urban living just plain nicer by dampening noise and adding beauty. Medical science has found that being surrounded by trees reduces people’s blood pressure and stress hormones, making them feel less stressed and depressed overall.

—Scott Hewitt

But state law and a few local rules do apply to tree ownership and neighbor rights in Washington, Clark County and Vancouver, and they agree on the basics when it comes to tree limbs and waste that originate over the fence.

“You have the right to trim tree branches up to the property line as long as you do not harm the health or the structure of your neighbor’s tree,” according to the city of Vancouver’s urban forestry website. “You may not go onto the neighbor’s property or destroy the tree itself. Trees are considered property and a person who intentionally injures someone else’s tree is liable to the owner for property damage.”

The language in Clark County’s code enforcement guide for neighbors is almost verbatim.

That’s the legal bottom line. But nobody wants a see-you-in-court relationship with their neighbors (we hope). The real answer to many neighborhood tree conflicts is good communication, a broader point of view and simple reasonableness, Ray said.

“We always encourage people to be neighborly and talk with neighbors how they want people to talk with them,” he said. “Most people do not like it when a neighbor tells them what to do with their property.”

Bringing an arborist into the picture can add a lot of clarity, Clifton said, starting with information about the tree itself.

“People don’t have enough education about trees,” she said.

An arborist can assess the tree’s health and come up with a pruning or maintenance plan that’s aimed at minimizing over-the-fence impacts.

“You can do a lot of pruning near your structure,” said arborist Frank Krawczyk of Camas, who works as a tree inspector for the city of Portland. “So many problems between neighbors can be avoided with a little proactive pruning.”

Natural

True confession: My suburban yard is bordered by several big, mature trees — Doug firs, maples and cherries — that add beauty to the landscape and keep us cool during heat waves. We love them wholeheartedly.

Then my neighbor stopped by with a diplomatic smile and an uncomfortable complaint: “Your trees are killing our roof.”

The blinders fell from my eyes. One tall fir in my yard reaches far across the shared fence line, dropping bazillions of needles on the roof next door. The sight has grown so familiar that I stopped noticing it long ago.

Not my neighbor, though, who glared up at those bad-boy branches and declared: “They’re dirty trees, dirty trees.”

OK, that sounded less like a legitimate condemnation than a cool band name, but I felt his pain. So I promised to look into it, and was surprised at what I discovered.

In 2013, a King County judge dismissed a claim that profuse litter from a particular bigleaf maple — a really big bigleaf maple — made the tree owner liable for his neighbor’s roof and gutter cleanup costs.

“Nature’s disrobing” is protected by state law, the judge ruled, as reported in The Seattle Times. “Falling leaves are considered to be a natural occurrence.” The remedy for adjacent, aggrieved property owners “is to trim the branches back to the property line at their own expense.”

Awkward

What about trees that straddle property lines? When a tree trunk occupies the exact border between properties — even if that’s unintended — then it’s considered a “boundary tree” and legally shared property. Maintaining it is both parties’ responsibility. Talk about awkward!

Free trees

Vancouver Urban Forestry distributes free yard trees to city residents in an annual fall giveaway. The city offers 10 varieties of trees, including Oregon white oak, ponderosa pine and frontier elm. Registration is required at www.cityofvancouver.us/publicworks/webform/yard-tree-giveaway-event. Trees are available for pickup between 10 a.m. and noon on Oct. 22 in a drive-thru event.

Some hard legal lines can seem petty — even ridiculous. You may have the right to prune an overhanging neighbor tree, but you have no right to pick its fruit. When that fruit falls to the ground, however, it’s all yours. Just like the leaves and needles.

Needles from my fir tree started giving me the stink eye from atop my neighbor’s roof. “Sorry, not my problem” just didn’t feel like the right response. Robert Frost may have held that good fences make good neighbors, but is the same true of legal hard lines?

I invited a trusted arborist to take a look. He agreed that the tree was strong and healthy, but suggested a serious trim on the offending side.

How serious? No more than 20 percent of a tree’s foliage should be removed in a single year, Krawczyk said.

“Leaves produce the tree’s food,” he said. “Don’t take away too much of the canopy. That will cause new problems.”

Try mediation

If you’ve got a difficult or long-standing tree conflict with a neighbor, try Community Mediation Services: 360-334-5862, www.mediationclarkcounty.org

My arborist said we’d come in under the 20 percent wire and give my neighbor some relief. Armed with that information, I offered to share the cost of the trim with my neighbor. It’s not what the law requires, but after all, if our roles were reversed, I surely wouldn’t appreciate the consistent pileup on my roof. Not to mention the headache and expense of getting it down from atop the second story.

As Ray suggested, tree conflicts can be opportunities to view your shared landscape from a different perspective.

“Most neighbors only see one side of their trees and are not aware what might be occurring on the other side,” he said.

Recovery mode

There’s never a slow tree-maintenance season in the verdant Pacific Northwest, Krawczyk said. But this year has been exceptional, as local trees scorched by last summer’s record-breaking “heat dome” event made the most of the exceptionally wet spring that followed, he said.

“All the trees seem like they’re in recovery mode. They’ve been soaking up as much water and growing as fast as they can,” he said.

Tree danger

Falling leaves are one thing, but limbs that drop or an unstable tree that seems ready to topple is a different matter.

It’s always a tree owner’s responsibility to maintain trees so they’re safe. If you’ve alerted your neighbors that their tree seems dangerous, no action is taken and then the tree does real damage to your property — or person — your neighbor may well be liable.

To determine the health and safety of any individual tree, consult an arborist.

Krawczyk has worked for 20 years as a tree inspector for the city of Portland, where he sizes up tree situations, nuisances and hazards in order to issue permits, write reports and work with developers on tree plans. Three years ago, the Camas resident also launched his own business, PNW Tree Consulting, in order to bring that expertise to Clark County, he said.

He’s not someone you call to get tree trimming or removal done. As a consulting arborist, Krawczyk offers unbiased opinions about neighbor tree problems, conflicts and hazards.

That can mean determining the replacement value of trees that have been felled without permission and even heading to court to speak as an expert witness, he said. But it can also mean calming the nerves of homeowners spooked by weather or iffy-looking limbs, he said.

“Any time the wind blows, that can trigger people’s fears,” he said.

Krawczyk’s one proviso about tree companies: Many are simply out to sell their work. Make sure you find an arborist you trust. Get educated about your yard trees and their health. Don’t automatically opt for removal.

In the end, urban forester Ray said, remember that trees are living things. The ones that please you on your own property — or annoy you from over the fence — may well predate you and your house on the landscape.

“Try to give the trees some consideration, if they are healthy just being trees,” Ray said. “We need more appreciation of these living organisms, as trees can live without us but we cannot live without them.”

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