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.
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.”
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.”
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.”