GOING OUT ON A LIMB

This column was written by my law partner, Bill Hamel.

Q:  My neighbor’s trees and overhanging limbs are shading out part of my yard where I would like to grow grass and other plants that need sun.  What are my options?

A:  Generally, you have the right to cut overhanging limbs and roots at the property line, but there are some important exceptions. Here are the basic rules you will need to follow:

  • You can only trim to the property line, so before firing up the saw, you’ll need to know where the property line is. If you think you know where the property line is, but you’re not 100 percent certain, the safest thing to do is hire a surveyor to mark the line.
  • If you need to cross the property line to make the cut, you will need your neighbor’s permission unless the limbs pose a threat of imminent and grave harm. For example, if an enormous widow-maker of a limb in your neighbor’s tree has snapped in a storm and is dangling perilously over your house, you may be justified in having a tree professional enter onto your neighbor’s property on an emergency basis to save your house and your family. In general, however, you can’t go on your neighbor’s property without first getting a green light from your neighbor.
  • Some HOAs have architectural rules and guidelines about trimming and cutting trees. Know your HOA rules and guidelines, and seek permission from the HOA to trim and cut if such permission is required.
  • When trimming overhanging limbs, you cannot cut down the entire tree. From a practical standpoint, this relates to trees growing at or near a shared boundary line where trimming to the boundary would take substantially the whole tree. Unless the tree is a threat of imminent and serious harm, get your neighbor’s permission before you cut. You can also seek court permission to cut limbs and roots if necessary, but this is often a lengthy process.
  • You are not allowed to unduly harm a tree by trimming it. Obviously, don’t kill the tree or try to kill it no matter how mad it makes you. Injury to a tree is generally not measured by its aesthetic appearance, but rather by the health of the tree. If you think you’ll be doing a lot of trimming, understand that there is often a right way and a wrong way to do it with respect to the health of a tree. Generally, trees need as many limbs and leaves as possible to be maximally healthy, and indiscriminately taking off limbs may endanger the tree. If this is a concern, we recommend using an arborist or professional tree-cutting service.
  • Finally, don’t do anything that would hurt yourself or others. Err on the side of hiring a professional tree-cutting service unless you’re justifiably confident that what you are about to do will be done safely.

If you are aware of and follow these rules, you should be able to trim the troublesome limbs and let in some sun.

This column was originally published in the Charlotte Observer on January 6, 2018. © All rights reserved.

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