Where's My Tree?
July 22, 2004 8:04 PM   Subscribe

My neighbor cut down my tree. [MI]

The tree in question is clearly on our side of the fence, and wasn't even hanging over on his side, so we can't figure out what he was thinking.

I went next door to talk to him, but his wife doesn't speak English very well, and said he wasn't going to be home until later.

So far, we've taken pictures of the splintered trunk and the branches in his truck. He's apparently cutting down a lot of things in his backyard, but our tree would have taken special effort to reach.

Has anyone been in this sort of situation before? My plan is to talk to him, get the story, and barring some reasonable explanation I can't imagine right now, I'm going to imply and then ask for him to pay for it. Suggestions? Horror stories? Moral support?
posted by jragon to Human Relations (43 answers total)
You have two choices: treat it as a civil matter, and try to work out a deal; or treat it as a criminal matter of trespass and vandalization. Depending on your approach, either call a lawyer or a cop.

What this guy did is a damned rotten thing, and since he didn't even have the courtesy to ask you about it before hacking stuff down, I'd be in a pretty rotten mood if I were in your shoes. I'd be most likely to call a cop and press charges, but you may be a different sort of person.
posted by majick at 8:14 PM on July 22, 2004

I'm so sorry to hear that. The loss of a tree near your home is practically a death in the family. Yes I'm a rabid tree hugger, but trees bring beauty, shade, and oxygen to our world, in addition to their hippie/crunchy/spiritual value, and they should be revered, not cut down when your back is turned. I think you have every right to be banging on this fucker's door at 1am, just as you would if he'd killed your dog and put the carcass out with his trash on garbage day.

Suggestion: document everything, everything, everything. All conversations with said neighbor, all evidence at hand, everything. Whip out old photos of your backyard. Interview neighbors now before they forget what happened. You want to walk into your small claims court or homeowners association or whatever with as many sheafs of paper as possible.

Good luck. Give 'em fucking hell.
posted by scarabic at 8:14 PM on July 22, 2004

hint: actually, you may not want to totally storm over there angry and demand an explanation. First, go over there and just ask what happened. This will give your neighbor an opportunity to cough up incriminating information like "yeah, well, you know the leaves it dropped were really clogging up my deck, so I had to cut it down," before their guard goes up.

If you put him/her on the defensive right away, they might conceal otherwise incriminating, documentable evidence. It's completely unbelievable that s/he would do something like this without talking to you about it *at all,* so I'd assume some ill-will or perhaps total incompetence on his/her part. First see if you can capitalize on his/her desire to bully you into submission t extract information. If at any point the neighbor says "I'm sorry," then by all means: DOCUMENT IT! It's practically an admission of guilt. But you'll only get that if you approach them casually.

Knock on the door, say hi, talk about something else first, then get around to the tree and just ask "so what happened with the tree out back?"

See what s/he says. Write it down after.
posted by scarabic at 8:20 PM on July 22, 2004

Hi All, this is Jragon's wife here. I just wanted to add some details on said tree and the situation.

First of all, the tree that came down is a 50+ year old white lilac with a trunk 6 inches in diameter. It is rooted one foot from the property line on our side of the fence. It was huge, more than 15 feet tall and arching over our backyard and flowered like you wouldn't believe this spring, our first spring in the house.

Secondly, our idiot neighbor had a giant backhoe and dump truck in his yard last Thursday making it level and terracing it. I thought he would fill the terrace with beautiful plants and finally have a nice yard. Instead, it is now filled with gravel. Approximately 4,000 sq. feet of white, nasty gravel. Also, he had dueling chainsaws hacking at the rest of his trees. During none of this did he even bother to inform us that major machinery would be banging away in 20 feet from our bedroom window for 3 days. Then he goes and cuts down our tree, and knocked over my compost bin to boot.

To top it all off, he doesn't come over at all, and the tree remnants are currently strapped into the back of his crappy old pickup truck, which means he would have had to come into our yard to clean up. Personally, that makes me think he was trying to cover it up (like we wouldn't notice our tree was missing?!).

Oh, and we're getting a puppy tomorrow and were counting on our fully fenced yard as of this morning, to remain, oh, FULLY FENCED. Obviously, I want to go rip his head [sic] off, but Jragon wants to take a more civilized approach.

Which is why I am sitting at home quietly while he goes and talks to him. HMPH!
posted by raintea at 9:20 PM on July 22, 2004

It's also a claim for your home owner's insurance... mature trees are worth thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars... and in some jurisdictions, you can collect 3 or 4 times the value of the tree in question as damages.

I only know this because my mother accidentally chopped down a number of her neighbor's trees (they live in the forest, and she had loggers in to thin the trees out and the neighbor's fence --- which we had understood demarcated the property line --- was actually a dozen or so feet inside his property line... yeah, it was a surprise to all of us).


But this doesn't sound like a mistake... so I would call your claims adjuster immediately, and let them document the damage thoroughly.
posted by silusGROK at 9:20 PM on July 22, 2004

Jeez, I'm in your camp, raintea. I'd be tempted to call the police and ask them to come along to the neighbors house for a discussion. Did he take down your fence, too? Please post an update.
posted by MegoSteve at 9:37 PM on July 22, 2004

Warning: I'm a deeply vindictive man, so my first reaction would be a lawsuit (esp. since you could successfully argue that the value of your home has been damaged).

...however, realize that if you go the legal route you'll probably have an enemy for life living right next door.
posted by aramaic at 9:38 PM on July 22, 2004

A fifteen foot tall fifty year old tree. Dear heaven. I would sue him so hard it'd make his parents' heads hurt.

Raintea and/or Jragon, please let us know what this tool had to say in defense of this indefensible act!
posted by Dreama at 9:59 PM on July 22, 2004

realize that if you go the legal route you'll probably have an enemy for life living right next door.

I think that's already established.

Good luck prosecuting this crime, and my condolences on your loss.
posted by rushmc at 11:30 PM on July 22, 2004

I wouldn't be mad just for cutting down your tree, but also from a safety standpoint. Simply put, most people don't know how to properly cut down a tall tree to a) make it fall in the correct direction (correct notching isn't always enough) and b) it is very easy to shortchange the actual height and in effect length of a tree when it falls.
Last summer, my dad and I cut down a tree that kinda', sorta', accidently landed on a power line. The line did't break (but, wow, do they have a lot of slack!!!), but someone or property can become seriously damaged by amateur tree-cutters.
posted by jmd82 at 12:37 AM on July 23, 2004

Have you taken any pictures?
posted by pieoverdone at 3:07 AM on July 23, 2004

our idiot neighbor had a giant backhoe and dump truck in his yard last Thursday making it level and terracing it... it is now filled with gravel. Approximately 4,000 sq. feet of white, nasty gravel. Also, he had dueling chainsaws hacking at the rest of his trees. During none of this did he even bother to inform us that major machinery would be banging away in 20 feet from our bedroom window for 3 days.

One of the things you may want to do, besides take pictures, is split up the offenses your neighbor has committed into two sections: actionable and non-actionable. There are no laws against ugly backyards, in most places anyhow, and probably few laws about banging, chainsawing and rudeness. Those things do still suck, and you certainly seem to be right about them. However if you're trying to make a case against your neighbor [whether for nuisance, or trespass, or whatever] it will be more effective if you can stick to the things he did that were illegal. If you seem like a neighbor with a grudge, it will diminish the effectiveness of the rest of your argument which, from my perspective, sounds fairly strong. That was a serious tree and I would think, if you can swing it, your neighbor owes you some sort of restitution, besides just an explanation.

were counting on our fully fenced yard as of this morning, to remain, oh, FULLY FENCED

I'm unclear on this. Did your neighbor take down part of your fence as well? Was the lilac part of the fencing? This can be added to the list of things that need to be fixed about this whole situation. My approach to these things is often to take the "Let's see if there's any possible way this could have happened legitimately" angle to keep myself from hyperentilating, and then carefully document and explore from that perspective. That way you know that your dislike of the neighbor isn't interfereing with your case against the neighbor which, practically speaking, should be two different things for optimal results. If you're going to continue to live there, you'll need to have some sort of ongoing relationship [though "enemies" will work, it just might not be very fun] and that notion needs to be part of the "what are we going to do about this?" process.
posted by jessamyn at 5:59 AM on July 23, 2004

I hope you happen to have some "before" pictures. Yes, call your insurance company and work with them to get vile neighbor's insurance to pay for the replacement. Lilacs do grow pretty fast, and you may get new shoots from the butchered lilac.

I had a jackass neighbor who decided that the lotline was in a new location. He mowed down plants and was generally rude and unpleasant about it. Thankfuly, he moved (apparently to wherever you live) but there wasn't much I could do legally. I'd start saving up for a tall, sturdy fence, precisely on your side of the property line.
posted by theora55 at 6:47 AM on July 23, 2004

Did anyone else get reminded of the movie American Beauty?
Their sycamore? How could you call it THEIR sycamore? Come on, a substantial portion of the root structure was on our property!
Not saying it's the same thing, mind you..
posted by jmevius at 7:13 AM on July 23, 2004

my SO would have paid significantly more for our new house if it had said lilac tree in the yard. Call your realator, she may have photos of said tree and information on its value to the house. I'm glad you are persuing the rational outlets for this (civil and criminal) rather than ripping the tires of the asshole's truck.
posted by jmgorman at 7:15 AM on July 23, 2004

Talk to a lawyer, explore legal recourses rather than beating the living shit out of the neighbor, how ever much he may deserve it. He trespassed to cut the tree, and committed a tort of conversion to remove the tree from your property and destroy your fenceline. Based on what I see, he's basically going to be liable for the diminution of value to your property + the value of the tree + the cost to fix your fenceline, minimum. Because this is pretty obviously a willful act, a creative lawyer and a receptive judge may be able to work in some punitive damages too.

Ghod, what an asshole.
posted by norm at 7:24 AM on July 23, 2004

It's possible that they cut it down because the root structure was "interfering" with their back yard project. My Dad came close to some arguments with his neighbor because their tree roots had taken over our yard and were loosening the foundation of our house. What your neighbor did sounds pretty crazy, though.
posted by onlyconnect at 8:10 AM on July 23, 2004

jragon: please keep us posted. Since this will probably involve the courts, it could take years to reach its resolution: perhaps a small weblog would be in order? You never really get to see how these things end, and I'm very curious.
posted by Eamon at 8:14 AM on July 23, 2004

Here in Oakland, CA, you have to obtain a permit from the city before cutting down a tree anywhere on your property or you get hit with big-ass fines. Perhaps you need a permit in your city. I'd check, and if you do, then there's another thing you can get him with. He should have to pay to remove the old tree stump, buy you a big new, well established lilac tree, have a professional plant it, and fix your fence AT LEAST. What an a-hole.
posted by aacheson at 9:54 AM on July 23, 2004

realize that if you go the legal route you'll probably have an enemy for life living right next door.
No you are standing up for the community and your rights. Why do you think people like this exist - because they know they can pull it off. Also you will be starting the proper paper trail on a law breaking neighbor. This is beyond a simple mistake when you add he entered a secured backyard.

To those that say don't start waves, have you priced trees? Depending on its value & the city laws this could be grand theft. Think of this being your car. You did take pictures of the tree in his truck?

I'm betting he will spin his story that the tree was damaged. So he went ahead and saved you the time and trouble taking it down. If you push harder you will find he damaged the tree while digging in his backyard with the back hoe or chainsaws. Which makes me suspicious that he cleaned up the mess he made quickly because the tree fell on your home.
posted by thomcatspike at 9:58 AM on July 23, 2004

fell on your home.
Basically my thinking is he knocked the tree down(cut it roots) which then was causing more property damage. So he cuts the tree up trying to hide the facts. You may want survey the area around the tree’s spot for more damages to your home.
posted by thomcatspike at 10:11 AM on July 23, 2004

Just to lighten the mood a tad - if this tree was close to the house then keep an eye on your structure. Admitedly I'm in the Uk where almost all houses are brick on a metre concrete slab, but tree roots rotting and breaking down are a common cause for house subsidence.
posted by twine42 at 10:37 AM on July 23, 2004

Your comment that you saw the "splintered trunk" in the back of his truck leads me to believe he inadvertently knocked down your tree. Not to say that he's not a creep - he absolutely is, for trying to hide it. But if he had used a chainsaw, the trunk would have a cleaner look to it. The fact that your composter was knocked over also leads me to believe that it was some kind of a freaky thing, and that the tree took out the composter on its way down. Please update us about this - I've been dwelling on it all morning!
posted by iconomy at 10:37 AM on July 23, 2004

I'm not saying they shouldn't destroy this person. I would, after all, destroy them myself were I in this situation.

...what I am saying is that someone who will do this sort of thing will also go out of their way to be a massive asshole every chance they get, once they've been pissed off.

This is the sort of person who will call the cops on you for noise violations that don't exist. They will steal your newspaper, knock over your garbage cans, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. If they have the money they'll launch nuisance lawsuits at every possible opportunity.

Be prepared. That's all I'm saying.
posted by aramaic at 10:38 AM on July 23, 2004

Is there a Seattle equivalent to Portland Maps? That gives you a fairly decent aerial photo of any PDX address. If you could find an aerial map for your street in Seattle, it would include your tree -- and the spread of its upper branches, which for a tree of that age will look impressive. (When I looked up the address of my Portland place, I noticed that the ancient cherry tree in our neighbor's yard is significantly bigger than their house. I hadn't realized that from the ground.)

I know there's the Terraserver page, though its maps don't seem as closeup as the Portland Maps ones. Still, it will at least show that the tree was there.

Good luck with bringing the idiot to justice.
posted by lisa g at 10:43 AM on July 23, 2004

Ooooh, jragon, I think you may be in the money on this one.

I'm thinking thomcatspike is right. You need to make a very close inspection of your home -- eaves, siding, etc. If the tree fell on your home, you want to know it.

Tree appraisal: http://www.sufa.com/appraisals.html & http://www.arborscan.com/legal/value.html & http://www.treesaregood.com/treecare/tree_values.asp

You want $$ for a full-replacement tree, fence repairs, possible home inspection for damage, possible home repairs, and the time and effort it takes to resolve this problem.

Please nail his ass.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:47 AM on July 23, 2004

I advise against talking to your neighbor. You have nothing to say to him, and it sounds like you already know he did it. If he approaches you, ask him to pay, and to never come on your property again. You should take photos of his pickup with the tree remnants, and anything else that implicates him.

You should call the police. You will need a police report in order to file an insurance claim.

Focus on fixing your yard. Get money from your insurance company, and sue your neighbor for anything they won't pay.

At this point, it's really tempting to channel your anger at your neighbor through the legal system, and use a civil suit for "justice." This is a bad idea. Use a civil suit to get cash, if you like, but don't expect justice or any good sense of closure from the court system.
posted by profwhat at 1:03 PM on July 23, 2004

Response by poster: Hey everyone, here's the brief update. raintea and I are still working out how we're going to handle this and we haven't fully decided yet. The two sides are obvious (sue versus don't sue) but we're not in agreement yet.

Talked to neighbor, was told he was removing his overgrown hawthorne bush/tree directly on the other side of the fence, and while he was taking it down, it fell down and broke our tree.

Didn't think payment was necessary because "it was just one branch on the tree". We went outside to look at the branch, and that "one branch" is also commonly referred to as "the trunk".

This means there's a much younger sprig coming out of the base of the trunk, and about 90% of the width of our large, arching tree is just gone. I see that as "destroyed tree", but he seems to think that's "one branch missing".

I told him if I was cutting down a tree and it fell wrongly onto his truck, I'd pay for it. He didn't see the connection. I told him if I broke one window of his house and left another 50 intact, I'd pay for the one window. Didn't seem to make a difference.

So we quickly came to an impasse, and that's about all I should say on a public site in the offchance this gets bigger. Thanks to everyone for your comments.
posted by jragon at 1:18 PM on July 23, 2004

" but don't expect justice or any good sense of closure from the court system."

I reiterate: I believe that criminal trespass and vandalism charges are in order. Call a cop, get in touch with the DA's office, find out where you stand.

Screw a few bucks here or there, if dude crossed the property line -- presumably by hopping the aforementioned fence -- and destroyed the tree, the guy can and should do jail time. The value of a tree iought to be enough to make felony charges applicable.

A civil lawsuit would just make the guy feel wronged. A criminal prosecution may very well get his attention and perhaps make him think twice about the next time he decides to destroy someone else's property.

You are not a plaintiff in a dispute with a neighbor. You are a victim of a felony.
posted by majick at 1:25 PM on July 23, 2004

while he was taking it down, it fell down and broke our tree.

...this is why professionals have insurance. If you can't get a criminal case going, then sue him. If you have Paypal, I can toss a few bucks into the "pay the lawyers" hat. It should be pretty damn open-and-shut if you've got pics.

Let us know how it turns out, when it's legally appropriate to mention that sort of thing...
posted by aramaic at 1:39 PM on July 23, 2004

agree with majick. I never said sue - your home owners insurance would be easier. It is obvious he does not understand the law or realize the damage he has done. Bringing the cops in will enlighten him on how damaging one's property works. He is viewing this as a broken twig, he even told you. Where did all this equipment and help come from. Maybe they are at fault. Ask him to ask them what a grown tree costs. He may know his laws and may have not had the proper permit…don’t black mail him, tell him you need the work permit for your home owners insurance and maybe his wallet will open up…

It was not until my late 20's that I realized the cost of purchasing a grown tree. Know home owners whom are unaware you can purchase fully grown trees. Then I tell them the cost and they realize why.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:11 PM on July 23, 2004

Hi All, it's the co-owner of the house, here to update you.

First, thank you all very, very much for the tips, support, and advice. As I had to sit at home last night so that my considerable temper did not land me in jail with an assault charge, Jragon went and talked to him. Apparently, the story goes like this: He was cutting down a hawthorne tree on his side of the fence (without asking or telling us), and apparently, since the hawthorne tree had thorns, he decided to hook its trunk to a pickup truck and pull it over. Well, since the hawthorne was growing about 1 inch away from the fence, it had its branches partly entwined with the lilac tree and so when he pullled the hawthorne tree over, the lilac went with it as well as crashing into the fence and compost bin. He then came into our yard, sawed the rest of the trunk of the lilac off and hauled it into his yard (and then into the back of his truck) to "help" us. This I see as concealing the evidence.

Jragon went over when he got home at 9pm and demanded to know what went on, then told him that the proper thing to do when you damage someone else's property is to pay for it. the asshole neighbor, Kyle is his name, then responded angrily "I am not paying you for that tree, it was just a branch anyways, I don't see what the big deal is, and besides, I've already said I'm sorry". So we have admission of guilt, and the "it was a mistake" explanation. Last time I checked, people have to pay for their "mistakes". Also, last time I checked, branches do not grow straight out of the ground.

I will work on making a webpage of the copious pictures that I took of the trunk, the tree strapped into the back of his truck, his backyard (from the lot line), the ruined compost bin, the fence, all of it.

Luckily, this tree was not near our house or foundation, so we don't have to worry about it falling on any structure or rotting out.

Jragon and I are divided on how to deal with this one. I want Kyle, our idiot neighbor, to pay for his mistake, a new mature tree, the fence, admit what a sh*thead he is, and bake me a batch of cookies. Jragon wants to live and let live and not make an enemy.

Oh, one last detail, for the backstory, you know. This guy is the son of a man who owns five houses in our area and he (the son) goes around "fixing" the houses for resale. So right now he and his wife are living there with 4 other people (who I believe are in illegal units). also, I fail to see how hacked-down trees (the two trees left in his yard have only a few branches) and 4,000 sq.ft. of gravel are a selling point in a neighborhood of mostly upper middle class yuppies...

posted by raintea at 2:15 PM on July 23, 2004

hm, didn't read the hubby's post yet, so we'll see how they differ... :)
posted by raintea at 2:16 PM on July 23, 2004

{aside} My comments above may look wrong remember an earlier AskMe post about a neighbor problem I had. I was never notified of the problem nor allowed to fix it, just pay for it if “I was the source of the trouble.”
posted by thomcatspike at 2:23 PM on July 23, 2004

Well, looks like we're pretty much on the same page, except that I still destroy him and his idiocy. Also, I have placed calls into our realtor's office, the county's office to determine lot lines, and our insurance agent's office, along with taking extensive pics. This evening, we are going back over there to get the tree back, assuming that he hasn't done away with the evidence yet (I'm counting on the same laziness that he exhibited to such great effect when he hitched the hawthorne to the truck, here).

posted by raintea at 2:26 PM on July 23, 2004

Jragon and I are divided on how to deal with this one. I want Kyle, our idiot neighbor, to pay for his mistake, a new mature tree, the fence, admit what a sh*thead he is, and bake me a batch of cookies. Jragon wants to live and let live and not make an enemy.

Normally I'd be with Jragon, but in this case the other party has cost you something of substantial value to yourselves. What's more, he likely did it in an attempt to profit himself, if he's also going to resell that property. It would serve no one's interest to be generous to him but his own, and he will not be grateful. You already have had the bad luck of having him for a neighbor. Do what you can to minimize the damages.
posted by alterego at 3:55 PM on July 23, 2004

Go, raintea, go!

Jragon, you're wrong. This is not a sit-back, don't-cause-trouble case.

Quit talking to the guy right now. There is nothing to be gained by it and a lot to be lost if either of you says the wrong thing.

The survey is a great idea. You want to be sure the hawthorne wasn't also yours.

I also think you should contact your city planning department and double-check whether permits are required for the work he is doing. And you should check with city bylaw enforcement to find out what sort of rules exist for multiple tenancy and rental. And you might also make enquiries of the building inspectors for the four or so properties the family owns, see if they have been properly certified. Any mistakes on any of that could lead Kyle to a world of trouble, none of which would require any further effort on your part (and which, if you do this well, wouldn't end up with your name being mentioned by the investigating parties.)

I think you'd also best notify the police, not so much as to have them do something, but so as to have an open record on Kyle. If any shit goes down, there'll be proof that it was started by his actions.

And, finally, I think you'd best contact your insurance company and do things exactly as they tell you. Let them deal with the lawyers and everything. When your adjustor comes out to inspect the damage, the photographs and the gravel monstrosity and attitude will very likely place him/her firmly on your side. At which point the insurance company may get very vicious, and again without further effort on your part.

Don't take no for an answer.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:37 PM on July 23, 2004

Let me re-emphasise two points:
  • Let your insurance company go to town on him.

  • posted by five fresh fish at 4:38 PM on July 23, 2004

    I'd give Kyle one more chance. Like thomcatspike says, it's a good thing to give people opportunities to make things right before calling in the heavy social machinery of the police, city, insurance company, and courts (which often can't be called back once you've set it into motion). Make it clear that you don't want to cause trouble, and you'd like to reach a satisfactory resolution between you two, but also let him know that if he isn't interested in negotiating a said satisfactory resolution, you don't have any other resort.
    posted by weston at 5:15 PM on July 23, 2004

    Response by poster: Oh good, now our personal discussions will be sprinkled with "but five fresh five agrees with me!" or "but weston had a point!"

    I'm probably not going to post any more here, but anyone's welcome to email me by clicking my user info page and mailing my name at the domain you see there.
    posted by jragon at 5:20 PM on July 23, 2004

    Response by poster: Oops, I meant to add a grin in that previous post. I do appreciate everyone's help on this, now I want to switch gears back into the real world and deal with this somewhere that won't be recorded by google forever.
    posted by jragon at 5:21 PM on July 23, 2004

    This guy was so wrong. However, you will be living next to him. I would be firm and demand full compensation, but proceed slowly so that he has time to come to the realization of how wrong he was. He might not ever get there, but if he can it sure would be a lot easier in the long run.
    posted by caddis at 5:47 PM on July 23, 2004

    Ah, hell. The guy is a transient. He's only living there until daddy kicks him out. Once the city finds out he's got an illegal subsuite thing going, he'll be out on his ear!

    Going to Kyle is to play a position of weakness, especially in the mind of a person like Kyle. He believes he holds all the cards right now. If he pays anything, it will be only to grudgingly shut you up, and he'll be forever resentful.

    Stick with the insurance company. If Kyle comes snivelling to you about how you're being unfair, then you're on ground to start negotiating. You can make the entire insurance nightmare go away for him, and he'll know it. At that point he will happily pay you, and he'll be somewhat
    thankful that you turned out to be a nice guy after all. And if Kyle doesn't come snivelling, you're still ahead: he'll think he got away with it, and you'll get full money.
    posted by five fresh fish at 5:57 PM on July 23, 2004

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