Pruning a neighbor's tree
April 2, 2007 12:47 PM   Subscribe

A neighbor's tree (in DC) has several branches that grow over our yard. We'd like to trim the branches to give our garden some more sunlight. Do we need his permission?

Unfortunately, we don't get along very well with the neighbors. We've asked them for permission to do the pruning, and they initially said OK, but then changed their minds a week or so later (all this is in writing, by the way).

It's my understanding that we don't really need their permission--as long as the branches are, in fact, over our yard, and as long as we do a decent pruning job, we can do as we please.

Googling turns up all sorts of confirmations of this, but nothing specific—I want the actual DC law that says so. I'd like to print out the relevant DC code or regulation, in case the neighbor (or the police, at his beckoning) shows up at our door (or threatens to sue).

Can anyone refer me to the correct resource for this?
posted by MrMoonPie to Law & Government (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you prune a tree on one side, it can fall over (perhaps, in the next big wind storm) and it would fall away from you, towards him, and you might conceivably be liable.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:51 PM on April 2, 2007

Also, if you already don't get along, doing this will guarantee that you'll escalate from cold war to open hostilities.

Invite them over for a beer, tell them that you'd really like more sun in the garden, you'll pay for the pruning, and you'll happily work with them to find a compromise everyone can live with.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:22 PM on April 2, 2007

Is it a street tree? If so, it's owned by DC's Urban Forestry Administration and they list some specific requirements that must be meet before they'll trim it.

If it's not a street tree, UFA advises discussing the situation with your neighbor, which you've done, and calling in an certified arborist. You could also take the situation to mediation—many municipalities offer free or low-cost mediation programs for conflicts just like these.

As your googling has no doubt turned up, the issue with tree trimming is that while a homeowner is generally allowed to trim back a neighboring tree's branches, the homeowner is not allowed to trim it to the extent that it damages or kills the tree. As trees are often slow to show damage, trimming a neighbor's tree without having an agreement in place beforehand leaves you open to a fairly large window of liability/degrees of interpretation. Given that your relationship with your neighbor isn't on the firmest of grounds, it would be best to bring in a neutral third party.
posted by jamaro at 1:28 PM on April 2, 2007

Findlaw agrees that you have the legal right to do the trimming, but you should make certain you get a certified arborist to do it, so that you're covered in case anything happens to the tree as a result.
posted by cerebus19 at 1:29 PM on April 2, 2007

You can prune anything that crosses your property line. Bear in mind that the branches will spring back a bit without the extra weight, so prune a bit at a time. I've pruned many, many trees, and have never experienced or heard of the problem Steven mentions. In fact, a pruned tree is less likely to fall, because you're reducing wind resistance. In any case, he would have to prove that was the reason, which would be virtually impossible, since there are so many other reasons a tree might fall (pruned roots would be one). When pruning it is best to cut when the tree is dormant, cut back to another branch (don't leave a long stub) and make your cuts perpendicular to the branch to minimize the exposed surface area and speed healing. You don't need to coat the exposed surface with anything, but do use a clean saw and/or pruners (disinfect with bleach or alcohol).
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:37 PM on April 2, 2007

Best answer: I'm not 100% sure this is relevant, but we have
DC Code § 22-3310. Destroying vines, bushes, shrubs, trees or protections thereof; penalty [Formerly § 22-3110].
It shall be unlawful for any person willfully to top, cut down, remove, girdle, break, wound, destroy, or in any manner injure any vine, bush, shrub, or tree not owned by that person...[goes on to describes fines]
I suppose there might be a counter-argument that the growth is a common-law trespass, and perhaps even that they don't own the portion growing over the property line, but still this section of the code would give me pause before chopping.

Anyway I did only a preliminary search and I welcome correction by someone who knows better.
(Insert standard legal disclaimers)
posted by exogenous at 1:38 PM on April 2, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, exogenous. I saw that, and, indeed, it's what's giving me pause. Everyone says "You can prune anything that crosses your property line," but no one gives a citation, anywhere that I've found, anyway.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:58 PM on April 2, 2007

Best answer:
Thanks, exogenous. I saw that, and, indeed, it's what's giving me pause. Everyone says "You can prune anything that crosses your property line," but no one gives a citation, anywhere that I've found, anyway.
I doubt there will be a specific statute. It is based in the common law of property and is a self-help remedy so long as you don't injure the tree (which is also property) or trespass on his property to cut it.
posted by Lame_username at 2:14 PM on April 2, 2007

MrMoonPie, have you looked through older Post columns from the real estate section? There's a write-in column that is always filled with interesting info and often has questions about neighbor relations and tree trimming, fences, etc. I know I have seen this issue covered ad infinitum, though you may not have much luck getting the exact legal cites there.

I would add that I am quite certain I have seen in that column the statement that what you're being told is the exact OPPOSITE of what is true.
posted by phearlez at 2:18 PM on April 2, 2007

With the assumptions that (1) you're in no hurry, (2) only small branches are involved rather than limbs, and (3) it won't harm the tree -- one oblique idea is to nip off a few inches every day when the neighbor isn't home. If the branch disappears slowly enough they likely won't notice. Not that I recommend my idea, but it's what I would consider doing personally.
posted by rolypolyman at 2:28 PM on April 2, 2007

Best answer: This is from an article that was in the Post last November:

Problem is, she's citing law, but the law is not exactly on her side. Legally, Rice could probably start snipping at the tree, lightening the tree's branches on her side. But, if she leaves the tree unbalanced, it could fall over, and then a lawsuit could enter into things.

With trees, it's never easy. Even a lawyer for the city says he cannot describe the city's laws about trees on private property, because "I'm not permitted to give legal advice, and by me telling you what the law is constitutes legal advice."

He is also not permitted to give his name, he says, when he finally relents, checks the law books and says that no D.C. code actually covers this issue. But a 1950 court case, Sterling v. Weinstein, decided that tree branches growing over a neighbor's yard are not a nuisance, but they are a trespass, and the neighbor can cut the branches back him- or herself -- something Rice is not eager to pay to have done.
posted by amarynth at 2:29 PM on April 2, 2007

Best answer: I doubt there will be a specific statute.

How about some case law?
posted by phearlez at 2:30 PM on April 2, 2007

MrMoonPie, a check on shows that most of their copies of "Neighbor law : fences, trees, boundaries & noise" are not checked out, so you might want to mosey over to one and flip through one. Takoma Park lists it as in the reference section so you can be sure that it won't be checked out (if it hasn't been stolen or misplaced, of course).
posted by phearlez at 2:34 PM on April 2, 2007

I don't live in D.C., but I have personal experience with this issue.

My back yard is quite wooded, and butts up in the back with my neighbor's yard. I cannot easily see my neighbor's yard from my property because of the wooded area. Soon after we moved in, I hired a tree service to cut down some trees to make way for a pool. While they were working, my neighbor came into my yard and started talking to the tree guy in charge. After she left, he came up to the house to tell me that she had asked him to "top off" the trees on my property adjacent to her yard because they had grown so large that they were shading her vegetable garden. He told her that that decision was up to me, and advised me that doing so would surely kill the trees in question. I went to talk to her about it, even offering to help her till the garden on the other end of her yard. She refused.

A few months passed, and her husband appeared at the door with a different tree guy in tow. He started yelling that my trees were impinging on his property and the tree guy was going to cut them RIGHT NOW. The tree guy, sensing a law suit in the making, said that if the trees were not on my neighbor's property, he was not going to cut them. I walked over to the trees in question, and there were indeed some branches over their property. I offered to have my tree guy take care of it, and that was when the real story came out - he wanted those trees "topped off" again.

He was so belligerent that I ended up consulting our lawyer, who found a citation in state law relating to timber harvesting, that stated that it was a Class B felony to cause more than $1,000 worth of damage to someone else's trees. He sent them a letter, and that was the end of it.

SO - if I were you, I'd offer to pay for a licensed arborist of your neighbor's choosing to do the work that you would like to be done on that tree. Otherwise, if you do the work without their permission, you may be in serious trouble. Also, I'd consult a lawyer if this is really important to you.
posted by Flakypastry at 6:02 PM on April 2, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, all. I didn't know all the complex interactions between statute, common law, and case law, so this has been an education for me. I was able to find something in the DC Code defining airspace as real property, so I think that will be helpful to me, as well.

Believe me, if I thought a happy compromise could be reached, I'd go that route in a second. We've had to call the police on the neighbor on several occasions due to his hostility and harrassment (and animal neglect). The guy's a hard case, so we want to be sure to know our rights before any possible interactions with him.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:50 AM on April 3, 2007

« Older "By medicine life may be prolong'd, yet death will...   |   GTD Wallet for less? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.