'Arborcide' and 4 other nasty tree fights
When a neighbor whacks your tree, you have more options than engaging in neighbor-versus-neighbor warfare. Learn the law, be ready to compromise and get expert help.
Whether the trees on your property are stately and majestic or little more than glorified shrubs, you're probably emotionally attached to them. They cool your home in summer and buffer winter winds. They filter dust, prevent flooding and scrub the air of pollution.
And they can also be at the root of some of the nastiest neighbor disputes.
What's to fight about? "Everything from encroaching limbs and roots to view obstruction to personal injury from falling trees to nuisance actions — dropping pine cones and sap — or creating a fire hazard," says Barri Kaplan Bonapart, a California attorney and mediator who specializes in tree disputes. "Anything you can imagine a tree can do, you'll have disputes around."
When one person whacks down another's tree, some call it "arborcide." Such fights become neighbor-versus-neighbor brawls. Consider the case of Douglas Hoffmann, a Las Vegas retiree sentenced to up to five years in prison early this year for killing about 500 trees near his home. His homeowners' association had refused to let him remove the trees so he could enjoy a view of the Vegas strip.
For Youngstown, Ohio, attorney and magistrate Raymond Delost, the offender was the local power company. His wife, Maria, arrived home one day in July to find their electric utility sawing down 14 white pines the family had planted 18 years before, on an easement across their land.
"We planted them, we've enjoyed birds nesting in them, we've enjoyed the buffer between the homes and the fact that they keep down pollution and noise," says Raymond Delost, who is suing the utility for $10 million. "They keep light out and keep down the air conditioning. … There's a whole impact that goes beyond whether somebody violated an easement."
Indeed, Bonapart says most tree disputes aren't essentially about trees. "It's usually some other issue for which the trees become a lightning rod."
It's wise, then, to bone up on the law and know the available resources for keeping your own tree disputes from growing from polite disagreements to outright hostility. Here's a quick look, along with some insights on how to handle five common tree conflicts.
Learn the law
Break a state law protecting a tree and you could pay a $1,000 fine or spend as much as six months in jail. But laws dictating what you can and can't do to trees — on others' property and even on your own land — differ enormously from city to city and state to state.
Although case law (or "precedent") really sets the rules, more cities and counties are passing tree laws spelling out what's required, what's forbidden and which trees can't be touched whether they're on your own land or your neighbor's. Here are some examples:
- A "heritage tree" ordinance in Mill Valley, Calif., protects big redwood trees, while nearby Sausalito lists redwoods as "undesirable" (they grow fast, blocking views).
- In Washington, D.C., you can't remove a tree unless it's dead, dying or categorized as a weed species. You must get permission from a certified arborist to cut a tree with a trunk 17 inches in diameter or bigger. Break the ordinance and you pay thousands of dollars.
When laws conflict in their fundamental aim, state law prevails, says Columbus, Ohio, attorney and arboriculture expert Victor Merullo. He's one of a small number of attorneys nationally specializing in tree law. A three-month subscription to his Tree and Neighbor Law newsletter gives access to a state-by-state summary of statutes and case law that's meant to guide homeowners and attorneys in tree disputes. (He also charges $27 for an educational phone consultation that includes a review of the pertinent local laws.)
You can also learn your local laws by asking at city hall or the county courthouse. And the Arbor Day Foundation lists contact information for urban community foresters, who give guidance on laws in their areas.
Arborist as mediator
Even when the law's on your side, it's no help if the cost of enforcement — in lawyers' fees or in damaged relations — is prohibitively high.
That's where an arborist (sometimes called a "tree surgeon") may be able to help.
Arborists are certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, the American Society of Consulting Arborists or both. There are two types of arborists:
- Consulting arborists sell only their knowledge. They don't perform tree work and they take pride in their independence from tree services. If you're facing a potential neighbor conflict or if legal liability is at stake, search the ASCA referral directory for a registered consulting arborist with an "expert witness and litigation" or "forensic investigation" designation. Expect to pay from $75 to $300 an hour for a consulting arborist.
- The ISA trains and certifies contracting arborists, who perform services — pruning, fertilizing, spraying and removing trees and shrubs. A contracting arborist may charge nothing for a consultation, making money instead by performing the necessary work. (Fees start at around $35 to $50 and can run $100 or more per hour per worker.) You run the risk of being sold unneeded services, so check an arborist's ISA credentials here or locate a credentialed tree service in your area from the ISA's list of professionals (Note: They've paid a fee to be included).
Certified arborists of both types can help solve tree disputes. "Typically, there's something I can do to make it easier for both parties," says Fred Haefele of Helena, Mont., a retired certified arborist. The arborist should advocate for the health of the tree. "An arborist can be an intermediary — the tiebreaker," Haefele adds.