Few options when neighbor's tree affects your land


January 12, 2003|By Jonathan A. Azrael

A reader wrote asking for more information about tree liability:

"Yes, by law you or I can cut back to the property line anything that hangs in or over our property without obtaining permission from a neighbor. But what if you need to cut back further than your property line to stop the damage to your property but your neighbor refuses to give permission? What happens and what is my liability if that tree dies because of my cutting? I have been advised that if the tree dies, my neighbor can sue me.

"I have an extremely large black walnut tree almost on my property line. My neighbors refuse to allow me access to their property to cut it. The tree has damaged my vehicles and my cement -- by way of staining. And I have stumbled over nuts from the tree.

"Are there any laws that hold homeowners responsible for what is on their property and its upkeep?"

Dear reader:

Although you may think it's unfair, Maryland law provides only the limited right of self-help to trim or remove those branches of your neighbor's tree that overhang your property. There is no legal cause of action in our state for damage to patios or cement walks due to debris falling from healthy trees.

You also have no right to trespass on your neighbor's property to remove branches that hang over your property. Your right to self-help stops at your property line. If you invade the neighbor's property, you can be legally responsible for damage to the tree. Your neighbor does not have to grant permission for you to enter his property, even though it may be necessary or convenient for removal of overhanging branches.

If the tree dies because you trimmed or removed branches that encroach on your property, even if you remained on your property, your neighbor may claim that you or your contractor were negligent in doing the cutting. If you employ a licensed tree expert to do the work, however, it is unlikely that your neighbor's lawsuit would succeed.

No one can stop your neighbor from suing, but the lawsuit would lack merit.

If you live in a community governed by a homeowners' association, I have another suggestion: Check the association's declarations and bylaws to see if any covenants or regulations place stricter responsibilities on your neighbor and require the removal of encroaching tree limbs.

Private deed restrictions, such as those affecting homeowners' associations, are legally enforceable.

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