February 17th, 2016 at 10:00 am

Neighbor etiquette

You love that tall, graceful eucalyptus tree in your backyard. But your next-door neighbors don’t. How come?

Its branches hang over your property line, so fallen leaves and limbs sometimes clutter their yard. Its roots have crawled into their backyard as well, posing a potential tripping hazard and breaking up their nice, manicured lawn. High winds and soil saturated by El Niño rains threaten to send the tree crashing through their fence. And speaking of their fence, it looks like it’s about to fall over anyway.

What are you supposed to do when it comes to neighbor etiquette? You don’t want to sue or get sued by a longtime community resident, but you don’t want to spend a fortune on tree repairs, either. And you can’t force your neighbors to prop up the fence. Or can you?

The short arm of the law

Few things can come between neighbors more contentiously than landscaping disputes. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending which side of the fence you’re on, literally), California law has clear-cut rules for dealing with such situations. But before either party resorts to legal actions, it’s best to try to resolve differences on your own.

That’s usually easier said than done, of course. But if you’re on talking terms with your neighbors, it might help if you inform them of their legal obligations as homeowners regarding landscaping. Some examples:

Pinterest_NeighborBark up the right tree

The first matter to resolve in any tree dispute is determining who owns the tree in question. According to California Civil Code Section 833, “If the trunk of a tree stands wholly on the land of one landowner, that landowner owns the tree regardless of whether its roots, foliage, or branches have grown onto the land of another.” But the next section, 834, states, “If the trunk of a tree stands partly on the land of two adjoining landowners, then both landowners own the tree.”

Now that you’ve hopefully agreed on ownership, bear in mind that it’s usually perfectly acceptable for your neighbor to trim or modify any part of the tree that encroaches their property if it causes a nuisance. This includes “overhanging foliage, branches and limbs so long as the owner acts reasonably so as not to seriously injure or kill the tree causing the nuisance.”

But, according to Civil Code Section 3346, “If a landowner cuts foliage that is not encroaching onto his property and does not have the permission of the tree’s owner to trim, however, the person cutting the foliage may be liable to the adjoining landowner for up to triple the amount of the damage caused by the wrongful cutting. However, if the damage is accidental or based on a mistaken belief, damages may be limited in the court’s discretion to double the value of the wrongful cutting.”

If a tree falls in the ’hood

In California, landowners have a duty to inspect their trees to determine if they are healthy or hazardous, and to remove branches and even an entire tree if it poses a hazard. If the tree owner was negligent or careless by failing to maintain a tree after warnings or visual signs of problems, that owner is responsible for resulting damage. If the tree was well-maintained and a storm or earthquake causes a tree to fall, the courts will find the damage was from an act of God, and the tree owner won’t be held responsible, or liable, for any resulting damage.

CA landowners have a duty to inspect their trees to decide if they are healthy or hazardous Click To Tweet

Fences worth mending

California Civil Code 841 requires that adjacent landowners equally contribute to maintaining walls and fences between them, unless one of them opts to let the remaining sides of their property remain unfenced. If that landowner later fences in their property, they will then be responsible for payment of their proportional share of the original value of the fence.

What should you do if your neighbor doesn’t want to maintain a fence that’s falling down? First, try to reason with that neighbor. Good neighbors should agree on splitting the cost of the repair, especially if informed that they have a legal obligation to do so. If that fails, send your neighbor a demand letter setting forth their legal obligation and the cost of the fence. Attach a copy of any estimate you have acquired. If your neighbor still refuses to pay their proportional share, contact an attorney or pay for the repair yourself and consider filing a claim in small claims court.


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  • Drew says:

    This was really informative! I have never really cared much about zoning and stuff like that. If you have a tree that you aren’t taking care of, I’m going to cut it down or trim it. End of story.

  • Christina Collignon says:

    Thanks Drew, we’re glad you enjoyed it!

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