California tree law

Neighbors Tree Property Line

California Tree Encroachment Laws

Even the best of neighbors may run into tension when faced with issues regarding trees.  While one neighbor may be enjoying the shade provided by a beloved old tree, they may not realize that over time, branches have extended into their neighbor’s yard, and cause a property line dispute.

While a couple of limbs or some minimal shedding may not present a problem, over time, limbs may pose a threat to the neighboring foundation, structures or debris may be clogging gutters.  

California law will take the degree of the problem into consideration.  For a minor nuisance or inconvenience, the law will expect the neighbor to trim bothersome branches.  Should the interference be more problematic, a neighbor may have the right to sue.

Whether you have a case to sue due to encroaching trees, there are much more simple and cheaper, avenues to consider before filing a lawsuit in court.

Where Can I Look For Help?

Many people do not realize that merely notifying the city, utility company, or homeowners’ association of invading branches or roots will resolve the issue.

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Local Government

Cities will routinely prune and cut back trees that are on city property or if they endanger city property.  

First, you will need to determine whether the tree is on city property.  Visit your local city hall and review the city map to locate where the tree sits.  If the tree is on city property, determine the department that is in charge of tree maintenance.  A city clerk can help you locate the correct office.

Even if the tree is on private property, the city may step in and trim it back if the tree is interfering with city property, such as the obstruction of a sidewalk, crosswalk or blocking the view at an intersection.  

Also, the city may step in and order the owner to trim or remove the tree if the tree is in violation of a local ordinance, such as:

  • A diseased or hazardous tree
  • A tree that resides in a fire zone
  • A tree that blocks a neighbor’s view
  • A tree that exceeds height limits
  • A tree that is prohibited by law
  • Trees that are used as fence lines

Utility Companies

If there is utility use around the tree, such as telephone or electric companies, they may trim a tree that may pose a threat to equipment like utility lines. 

Should you notice nearby utility use, contact the appropriate utility company to see if they may trim back any invading branches or roots.

Homeowners Association

If you happen to live in a planned community or subdivision, residents may very well be bound by certain restrictions in the Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs).  Property deeds will reflect the CC&Rs. Contact your homeowners’ association office to obtain a copy.   

The CC&Rs may dictate specifications and rules regarding trees within the community.  Should a neighbor or owner be in violation of the regulations specified by the CC&Rs, you can notify the homeowners’ association for assistance. 

Your Right to Self-Help

When Can I Trim My Neighbor’s Tree?

In every state, a common-law right exists that allows a property owner to cut the branches and roots of a neighboring tree that is invading their property.   The rationale behind this law is that property owners and neighbors should work to solve problems together, rather than jumping into filing lawsuits.  

Typically, the property owner who decides to trim the branches or roots will bear the responsibility of payment.

Do I Need Permission to Trim Back Overhanging Branches?

You can trim branches and roots back to the limit of your property line or fence.  There are limits, however, to how far you may trim back (see below).

Limits on Self-Help

There are guidelines in place that will limit the amount of trimming you may perform on a neighboring tree.

Guidelines include:

  • You may not cut down the tree.
  • You need permission to enter the tree owner’s property.
  • You cannot injure the tree when trimming.
  • Trimming may only occur up to the boundary line between properties.

Additionally, it is prudent to consult a tree trimming service before trimming a tree back.  Trimming branches and roots puts stress on a tree, and you do not want to risk damaging or destroying the tree unintentionally. 

What to Do Before You Resort To Self-Help

Trim Neighbors Tree

As a neighbor and fellow property owner, it is also wise to notify the tree owner before you begin trimming the tree.   Should the trimming be extensive, your neighbor may want to utilize a tree service and may pay for the cost entirely.   

Not only will this help keep the situation amicably, but it may also lower your costs associated with trimming should the tree owner pay entirely or offer to split the cost of maintenance.

What To Do if the Tree Owner Refuses to Trim

The first step to take should a tree owner refuse to your suggestion of trimming or maintenance of the tree, is to write a letter setting out your intentions.  This is known as a demand letter.  

Keep the tone respectful and emphasize your plan to keep the tree safe and healthy, while notifying the owner how the tree’s branches or roots have impacted your property.  You may need to send more than one letter should the owner continue to be uncooperative.

Often, merely notifying the tree owner regarding your right to self-help or local laws regarding encroaching trees, is effective and can keep the issue out of the courtroom.

For instance, California Civil Code 833 and 834 states that trees whose trunks reside on the land of one owner belong to him or her exclusively, even if their roots or branches grow into the neighbor’s property.  As the tree owner, there is a duty to ensure that trees are adequately trimmed for purposes of reducing injury, property damage, or death. 

Before resorting to self-help and trimming at your own risk, a helpful alternative may be to take the issue to mediation.  Mediation is a meeting with a neutral third party who can help resolve issues without bringing them to court. Mediation can help keep costs down and avoid a lengthy lawsuit. 

When A Neighbor Can Sue

In some states, certain conditions will allow a neighbor to sue:

  • Tree encroachment onto neighboring property.
  • When encroaching branches or roots cause severe harm or damage to neighboring property.
  • If the tree is inherently dangerous or poisonous.
  • If the tree was planted by the owner

As noted above, the law regarding encroaching trees is a common-law rule; therefore, most states do not have clear ordinances or regulations for reference.  

What To Expect If You Decide To Take the Issue to Court 

If you are looking for a court to order a tree owner to trim back a tree, you will likely have to go the route of trial court, which will likely involve the use of an attorney.

Should you be seeking compensation for costs involved in trimming the tree, this should be brought to small claims court.  In California, any claim up to $10,000 can be brought to small claims court. Keep in mind, many small claims judges will require proof of a demand letter before allowing the case.

If you are left with no recourse outside of bringing the issue to court, you may consider a nuisance lawsuit against the tree owner.  In this case, you must prove the following:

  • The tree belongs to the person being sued.
  • The branches or roots are over or under your property.
  • You have notified the tree owner in writing.
  • Your property is adversely affected by the tree and can prove damages.

Should your property suffer harm as a result of an encroaching tree, you may be entitled to compensation for costs for repairs and or clean up.  Take note, a judge will want to see proof of damages in the form of receipts showing the amount spent and any written estimates for work that has not been performed.

In the case where a property has been severely damaged, you may be entitled to the difference in property value inflicted by the tree.  An appraiser can help you assess the difference in value.

Concluding Thoughts

While you have the right to trim back branches or roots to your property line, it’s always a good rule of thumb to notify the tree owner before you make any cuts.  The owner may want to share the costs or pay for the cost should pruning be more extensive.

However, should the relationship become less than amicable, consulting an attorney to know your rights and remedies may help you avoid costly litigation down the road.

The attorneys at Equity Legal are well versed in legal issues surrounding encroaching trees and are here to guide you through any unique needs you may have.

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