Q: Our neighbor has a tall tree. Each year, branches grow above the wall, spread over a part of our yard and drop a lot of debris. Can I trim it or require him to do so?
A: If you trim your neighbor’s tree, there is at least a potential risk that some portion of what you do is deemed wrongful cutting, even if by mistake. There are damage claims that can be made against you in that regard.
In addition, if you go onto the neighbor’s property without permission, you might wind up with a claim against you for trespassing. Bottom line, it is prudent to first notify your neighbor in writing about the problematic branches and ask him to trim the tree by such-and-such date. If he will not, or does not, my thought is to notify him further in writing that you are going to carefully trim it on your side; let him know when (date and time). Should you have someone who is skilled at tree trimming, who can do it on your behalf, even better. But there is no “fool proof” way to address a situation of this kind. If you have particular concerns about the neighbor, then your most prudent choice could well be to have a lawyer handle the situation.
Also note that research shows the California Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends against trimming trees during bird nesting season, which for many — but not all — birds runs from February to August. Some cities, including Long Beach, bans tree trimming during nesting season altogether.
Q: Who has responsibility to deal with a tree whose roots are causing problems for others?
A: Pursuant to California Civil Code Section 833, if the trunk of a tree stands wholly on the land of a particular property owner, that person owns the tree and has responsibility for it. This applies whether or not the tree’s foliage, roots or branches have extended onto the land of someone else.
In March, the California Redwood National Park issued a statement that anyone caught near a particular tree (named Hyperion) can face up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Hyperion, reported to be the world’s tallest tree, is located deep in the park, with no trails leading to it.
Over the past 16 years, it has faced significant environmental degradation from “the curious” after it was discovered by a pair of naturalists. The habitat surrounding the tree has been damaged and there are related concerns, such as safety issues (the tree’s location is very challenging to access), human waste, trash and side trails people seek to create. Research indicates no punishment has been meted out to date, and hopefully none will be.
Ron Sokol has been a practicing attorney for over 35 years, and has also served many times as a judge pro tem, mediator, and arbitrator. It is important to keep in mind that this column presents a summary of the law, and is not to be treated or considered legal advice, let alone a substitute for actual consultation with a qualified professional.