Neighbor's tree on utilities- no one cares
October 18, 2017 12:39 PM   Subscribe

Our neighbor has a huge cedar tree right next to the property line. This tree has been topped in the past, is rotten inside, and subsequently has a heavy broken branch being held up by the telephone line. I can't get anyone to take action- what can I do to get this cleared up?

I've sent messages to AT&T, to PG&E, to Oakland DPW, to my city council member. The agencies all say they've checked it out and either that it is fine-which it's clearly not- or that it is not their problem because the tree is on private property. We're talking about a heavy mass of branches from at least a 12" diameter main branch, split from the tree but still growing (ie getting heavier).

Our neighbor is not a particularly nice person, and when we brought it up to him he said something like "well who knows whose property it's on?" (it's on theirs.) He doesn't live in the house and is currently doing work to sell it, which complicates things- we'd like to try to buy the house and don't want to antagonize him. However my limited, and possibly incorrect, reading of California law is that utilities are ultimately responsible for keeping trees away. In light of the recent fires I'm trying to get this solved again. How can I escalate this problem so that someone pays attention?
posted by oneirodynia to Law & Government (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That seems weird that no one from the city/utilities cares about this since it sounds like a matter of time before it causes destruction and costs them $$. When you say you've sent messages, does that just mean emails or letters? This might be the kind of situation where you need to call or show up in person and be a pain in the ass until you find someone who does take it seriously.

Or as an alternative suggestion, could you maybe hire an independent danger tree assessor (DTA) to come in and take a look? I don't know if that's a common thing in the US but I've heard of people doing that here in Canada in neighborly tree disputes.
posted by mannequito at 12:59 PM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Outside of interest in buying the house, why are you concerned ? Do your power lines go through the tree as well ? (ie tree branch snaps the lines, you'll also lose power ?)

Their answer about private property is more or less right. Power companies clear trees in the right-of-way (ie trees/branches between the poles) but not between the pole and the house. Pole to house is usually on the homeowner to maintain.

You could try the power company again, but if you aren't the homeowner (and/or it isn't your power lines going through the tree) you might not get anywhere. You could try being more explicit ("the lines are being pulled down by this branch"), but ..
posted by k5.user at 1:00 PM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

When you say you've sent messages, does that just mean emails or letters?

Seconding possibly calling if you haven't gone that way, though I presume because you've heard back they have at least acknowledged receiving your communication. My understanding from my area (not CA) is that the utilities should give a shit about this. Possibly a few strategic photographs sent to the local news and/or the cops "This is a hazard and I am concerned about fire" or possible showing up (if you can) to a city council meeting with your concerns. Other options might be a local facebook group or NextDoor type thing, there may be some sort of assessment they are doing with incomplete information that you could fight back against once you know why they're deciding this is a non-problem.
posted by jessamyn at 1:04 PM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

You could send both the owner and his real estate agent a certified letter [with copies of dated correspondence you had sent to the utilities etc] that informs them both of the danger present as you see it and mention the potential risk/cost to a new owner and if the real estate law requires him to disclose this information then step back and let his agent explain to him why fixing the issue is preferred to having to disclose this and risk a delay or block the sale.
posted by Freedomboy at 1:07 PM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've sent messages to AT&T, to PG&E, to Oakland DPW, to my city council member.

When we had a city councilor who did little, we found cc'ing the At Large councilors on all emails to be helpful in lighting fires of activity.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:11 PM on October 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

If I identified this situation to the owner of the lines (the appropriate utility company) and they said it's fine, what's it to me?
posted by humboldt32 at 1:15 PM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

In my experience the utility company will only deal with it once it actually falls and takes out their utility. Until then, it's not really your concern. It should be theirs or the owner's, you are correct about that, but they are clearly not concerned. You shouldn't be.

If it is on private property than the utility company cannot do anything about it and the owner isn't required to do anything about it. If it falls on a road it becomes the town's problem to deal with.

Just do what I do, shake your fist at it every time you see it, but otherwise ignore it. It may also stand up a lot longer than you think it will.
posted by bondcliff at 1:20 PM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just to clear up a few things: this is not pole-to-house, it is the main lines that run along the block, that also carry the power lines. The tree is in the front yard next to the sidewalk (but not in the hell strip). I care because this broken branch is being held up by lines over the sidewalk, meaning someone could be hurt or killed, beyond the fact that telephone/internet service would be out.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:36 PM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Since at least one of the North Bay fires started at least in part to improperly maintained power lines, and since your attempts to alert possible responsible parties via the usual methods hasn't gone anywhere, you might want to tweet @ some of the local TV stations (KTVU, etc.). It's worth a shot.

To everyone who's like "what, you might lose power" or "NBD, not your tree, not your job": we are still in the heart of fire season here and nobody in the bay area can breathe for the smoke coming from the multiple fires in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Solano, and Santa Cruz counties. Fallen power lines can and do start fires.
posted by rtha at 1:37 PM on October 18, 2017 [22 favorites]

You might consider filing a complaint with the state utilities commission and see if that gets things moving more locally.
posted by goggie at 2:13 PM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Is it actually on the power lines? Usually there are high voltage on top, low voltage (230 vac) next, and cable/phone are nearest the ground. If tree is on cable/phone the power company won't care, and there is really no danger.
posted by H21 at 2:21 PM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

There is actually some danger if the insulation on the wires wears away over time. Cable trunk lines have voltage on them to power downstream amplifiers and phones are line powered.

Yes, 48-100ish volts is less likely to start a fire, but if the tree dries out in places while still having enough moisture content to create a path to earth, both phone and cable lines are perfectly capable of delivering enough power to light dry kindling aflame. It only takes a few watts in ideal circumstances.
posted by wierdo at 2:36 PM on October 18, 2017

Have you reported the problem through the Oakland SeeClickFix? My office used that approach to get a drain grate replaced pretty promptly.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:00 PM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Toronto Star (the city's largest newspaper) has a column called the Fixer where readers will write about things wrong with their neighbourhoods and the columnist will try to figure out which municipal office or company is responsible and shame them into fixing it. Do you have anything similar in your area?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:24 PM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I know it's 2017 when text and email rule, but this is a job for the telephone.

I live on the east coast, and I'm pretty sure that our city government would be interested to know about a situation like that. If you run out of other choices, call your local fire department.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:11 PM on October 18, 2017

Thanks, I marked as best answers things I had yet to try.

I did talk to AT&T last year on the phone after initially contacting them through Twitter (I don't have an AT&T account, so getting through on phone initially was not working). They eventually said someone came out to inspect and it was fine! I also tried SeeClickFix which routed me to Oakland DPW who closed the case without doing anything. There was even a day later on when AT&T was doing work on our block, some sort of connector replacement- and when they got to this tree, the crew stood around on phones and radios for 45 minutes, and I thought "okay, now they really know". Then they did their thing and moved on. That was nine months ago.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:38 PM on October 18, 2017

Maybe your "not very nice" neighbor is a known problem to the utilities as well?

The utility companies in my area are pretty proactive about this stuff, but usually they put problem trees on a list and one or more tree services work their way around town during the warm months.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 4:45 PM on October 18, 2017

also tried SeeClickFix which routed me to Oakland DPW who closed the case without doing anything.

Submit it again. And call or email your city council-person directly. Post to NextDoor (my NextDoor group got an illegal massage parlour shutdown recently).

Use words like 'imminent risk to public safety'. Attach photos. Talk about the Sonoma fires.

The city DPW is overwhelmed, but if you think it's a real safety risk, keep pushing it.
posted by suelac at 4:46 PM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Take pictures and send them to the legal department of the places you've contacted. In the letter, say this is a formal notice of a hazard, and you would be happy to share this with the plaintiffs if a lawsuit results from their lack of action.
posted by Sophont at 5:29 PM on October 18, 2017

One more thought: Stop by your local firehouse and show them photos, and talk to them about who you've contacted and what non-response you've gotten. See if they have any suggestions, reassurance, etc.
posted by rtha at 7:02 PM on October 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

Fire department is an excellent suggestion. You might also touch base with your city's Code Enforcement department.
posted by vignettist at 7:19 PM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

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