Can I Prune My Neighbours Tree?
Winter 2021/22 is upon us, the cold has set in, and the urban forest has gone dormant. Many of us wish we could do the same, setting our buds in preparation for the spring thaw and shutting down our systems while winter passes through. I find myself enjoying moments that were elusive during our busy work season; stoking the wood stove on a crispy morning, putting the final touches on home projects that had been long since abandoned, and watching the Chick-a-dee's flitter around our Manitoba Maples. Whatever it is that I end up doing, trees aren't ever far from my mind, and during a cold walk around the "block" of our country home, my wife and I landed on the topic of border trees and property line disputes. "You should write an article about this" she said, "people aren't aware of this kind of stuff". Well, here goes, forgive me if the topic "borders" on the dry side... You see what I did there?
So, you own a property, and you either have trees on your property or your neighbours do. How do we navigate the issues surrounding trees and their various components crossing the property line? For the sake of this article, we can break down a tree into 3 components: the root system, the trunk and root flare, and the upper canopy and its branches. For most cases involving trees and property lines, roots and branches can be lumped into the same category. Now, lets say your neighbours trees have roots and branches encroaching on your property, but the trunk and root flare is entirely off your property, this is a Border tree. The second case is where the property line passes through any part of the trunk or root flare, this is a Boundary (or Straddle) tree.
Border trees are generally the easiest to deal with. If the trunk and above ground root flare on 100% on your neighbours property, then the tree belongs 100% to your neighbour. Border trees can become Boundary trees if the root flare or trunk increases in circumference over time to straddle the property line (something to consider when surveying your property). Border trees can be pruned by neighbours, within reason, to remove the encroaching branches (but usually not the encroaching roots, unless they are causing verifiable damage). Pruning should be performed to professional standards and should not cause undue harm to the tree. Remember, the entire tree is owned by the neighbour and anything being removed from the tree should be returned to them if they so desire. I would always advise to have a conversation with the tree owner(s) about concerns and plans for pruning before going ahead with any work. Now, if you do have tree branches from a Border tree coming across a property line, be aware that you are not entitled to have any type of injunctive relief from those roots and/or branches unless actionable damage from those encroaching roots and/or branches can be proven. In laymens terms, if your neighbours tree is causing damage to structures on your property, they have a responsibility to take action, if it merely encoaches on your airspace, then they have no such requirements.
Boundary, or Straddle trees are a different story altogether. Once it has been determined that the trunk or root flare is situated on a property line, then the tree becomes a shared property tree, jointly owned by the parties on either property. At this point, any work completed on the tree requires consent from both parties. While this sounds counter-intuitive, it makes more sense when compared to a vehicle. Lets say I come home from work one day and find a vehicle parked across the property line and its rear tires are sitting on my front lawn. This would be akin to our Border tree scenario. Ownership of the vehicle is 100% my neighbours, and i can have the vehicle removed from the property without causing damage to the vehicle. Now, a Boundary tree is like the vehicle that my neighbour and share 50% ownership of, all decisions regarding modification, repair, or the sale of the vehicle need to be decided upon by both owning parties. Make a little more sense now? Once a tree becomes a Boundary tree, navigating pruning or removal of the tree becomes an issue of joint consent.
An up-to-date survey of your property should determine what type of trees you have, never rely on existing fence lines. And... as always, an ISA Certified Arborist can help you if you have any questions regarding trees on yours or on neighbouring properties.