Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Who Owns a Tree On a Boundary Line?

An owner of Lot A plants a tree, just on his side of the boundary line.  Years pass and the tree grows, to the extent that it now straddles the property line with Lot B.  The owner of Lot B likes the tree.  One year, during a windstorm, the tree drops a number of limbs onto the home on Lot A.  The owner of Lot A decides that, although he planted the tree and although it is perfectly healthy, it is not worth the mess it creates and he wants to cut it down.  The owner of Lot B, who did not plant the tree but has grown to like it, tells the owner of Lot A not to cut down the tree.  The owner of Lot A says, "I planted it, it is mostly on my property, I can cut it whenever I want."  Is he right?

The short answer is "no."

The highest authority on the issue in our state is found in the ironically-titled Happy Bunch, LLC v. Grandview North, LLC, 142 Wn. App. 81, 173 P.3d 959 (Div. 1 2007); review denied, 164 Wn.2d 1009 (2008).  The court held: “[a] tree, standing directly upon the line between adjoining owners, so that the line passes through it, is the common property of both parties, whether marked or not; and trespass will lie if one cuts and destroys it without the consent of the other.”  

According to the holding in Happy Bunch, the ownership of the tree is apportioned according to the percentage of the tree standing on each lot.  However, it is not subject to a majority-rule regime.  Instead, each owner must assent to the removal of the tree.

The court further held that trespass statute at RCW 64.12.030 is applicable to boundary trees.  That statute allows the injured owner to recover triple the amount of such owner's damages, plus attorneys fees.  Damages must be calculated “proportionate to the percentage of their trunks growing on [the subject] property.” 

On the other hand, each owner may remove limbs from the tree, in a manner that does not harm it, up to their respective boundary line.  Different rules may also apply where the parties know the tree to be diseased or unsafe.

So, pay special attention to trees near property lines and think before you cut.  

- Ryan D. White