Before You Cut Your Neighbor’s Tree …

It is a common occurrence: You look out your window and all you see is your neighbor’s tree dropping branches and nuts and bark all over your yard. Or, you can’t see anything at all because of that tree. Or, you are certain that large branches of that tree will eventually fall onto your garage. Before you take the chain saw into your own hands and cut off the offending limbs, you will want to know some tidbits to keep you out of “neighbor jail” – and possibly real jail.

Does a tree’s limbs or trunk crossing the property line give you the right to prune it?

Yes? No? Both Yes and No? It all depends on where you live. Check with your town, city, county and state municipalities for regulations about trees and property lines. In some areas, you are entitled to prune the parts of a tree overhanging your yard as long as the work does not damage the tree.
But why don’t you first ask your neighbor if he, she or they mind if you go ahead and have it pruned? They might actually appreciate it.

Should I just cut it straight up over the property line?

While that might seem to be a good way to shear a boundary hedge, large trees rarely respond well to inter-nodal (random) pruning cuts on their branches. This type of indiscriminate pruning invites diseases and insect pests that could eventually kill the tree entirely. Then you’re at risk of not only non-compliance to a municipal ordinance (see above), but to the ill-feelings this action will certainly develop in your neighbor.

How about if I just have my lawn person cut the tree back?

If you have your heart set on cutting back your neighbor’s overhanging tree branches, your best bet would be to have a qualified tree care provider perform the work. Tree care providers who are members of professional associations, are insured and who have certified personnel performing the work will know the local laws regarding which types of trees can be cut, and to what extent. Plus, they have the right equipment and training to perform the work correctly and safely. Finally, if your neighbor does have concerns, having it done by a professional might put them more at ease.

Steps to take

  1. Find out who actually owns the tree and where the property line is. Can you be certain that, just because it appears to be on your side of the fence, the fence is on the actual property line? How many times has that fence line been moved? If the tree is large and mature or particularly valuable, you would benefit from having the property surveyed to make certain of ownership.
  2. Have a qualified tree care provider write up work specifications on exactly how the tree should be cut back. It is usually a bit more complex than simply stating, “cut limbs back to property line.” The work order must reference the ANSI A300 tree pruning standards to assure the procedures being proposed take into consideration the tree’s future health. Oh, and check to see that your tree care provider has a copy of their current liability insurance policy on hand. Check their references as well – why not?
  3. This is probably the most important step when dealing with trees on a property line: If at all possible, get the tree owner’s written consent to the work being prescribed. Cutting a neighbor’s trees without that neighbor’s knowledge or consent will only lead to un-neighborly disputes that might lead you to court. If the pruning makes a drastic difference in the tree’s appearance or health or your tree care provider needs to access your neighbor’s property, the tree owner must be made aware of this action and sign off on it. Ignoring this step, or telling your tree care professional to “go ahead, it’s OK,” is actually not OK.

The best advice is to hire a tree care professional with the experience, expertise and equipment to assess and safely prune, remove or otherwise care for your or your neighbors’ trees. Contact the Tree Care Industry Association, a public and professional resource on trees and arboriculture since 1938. TCIA has more than 2,300 member tree care firms and affiliated companies. All member tree care companies recognize stringent safety and performance standards and are required to carry liability insurance and workers’ compensation insurance, where applicable. TCIA has the nation’s only Accreditation program that helps consumers find tree care companies that have been inspected and accredited based on: adherence to industry standards for quality and safety; maintenance of trained, professional staff; and dedication to ethics and quality in business practices. An easy way to find a tree care service provider in your area is to use the “Find A Tree Care Company” program. You can use this service by calling 800-733-2622 or by doing a ZIP Code search on www.treecaretips.org.

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TCIA arborists, safety and business professionals are also available as sources for tree related articles and issues: 1-800-733-2622 or tandersen@tcia.org.