In removing trees, get on legal ground


January 27, 2002

Dear Mr. Azrael,

My wife and I moved into our home last summer. There is a line of tall, 30-year-old, white long-needle pines along the property line to the left of our house. The pines were planted staggered, one about three feet on my property, the next about six feet down the property line and three feet off the property line, and so forth.

I would like to remove the trees and replace them with a line of cedar or arborvitae that do not grow as wide or as high as other evergreens. These new trees would act as a border between our two properties.

When I first met the neighbors to our left, I mentioned that this was something that I'd like to do. I did not ask them for their help. The only concern they had was that after taking down my trees would I be replacing it with a fence. I said that I was more interested in cedar or arborvitae.

I would like to take down the white pines on my property and maybe even take down my neighbor's white pines as well. Then I would replace them with 20 to 30 cedar or arborvitae in one continuous line just inside my property line.

I would do this at my own expense, which will be considerable. I cannot expect my neighbor to help share such an ambitious project. And I have not talked about this yet with my neighbor.

How best should I approach this project? What legally should I be concerned with? If the neighbor approves my plan, should I get anything in writing? Can a verbal agreement be OK? How should I involve the tree removal company, my neighbor and myself?

Chuck Smithson Elkridge

Dear Mr. Smithson,

Here's my advice on this project:

First, check your title insurance policy and deed to see if there are any restrictions on removing trees. Some subdivisions have covenants restricting removal of healthy trees without approval of the homeowners' association.

Next, remember you can only remove trees that are planted on your property. You have no right to cut down your neighbor's trees without your neighbor's consent.

Third, if your neighbor agrees to let you cut down trees on his property, get it in writing. Once you've reached an oral understanding, you should draft a letter to your neighbor, outlining the project, and have your neighbor sign a copy of your letter to acknowledge consent.

All owners of the neighboring property should sign the consent.

Written consent will protect you from potential misunderstandings. The tree removal company may want a copy of the consent letter or may want your neighbor to sign a form authorizing entry on the property to remove designated trees.

If your neighbor's tree falls during a storm and damages your property, the damage probably would be covered by your homeowners' insurance. The neighbor would not be responsible for the damage unless you could show that the neighbor was negligent. Usually, damage from a fallen tree is considered an "act of God," for which no one is legally responsible.

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