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Monday, October 14, 2013

Tree Maintenance and How To Avoid Awkward Moments at the Neighborhood Block Party

Every fall, municipalities and park districts face a barrage of resident inquiries about how to address a neighbor’s tree that is dropping leaves (or, worse yet, branches) onto their property. Before readying your blue ox and grabbing your axe (or your trusty Husqvarna), it is important to understand your rights and obligations concerning trees. Midnight felling sessions can lead to big legal headaches and not-so-neighborly encounters at the summer block party.
As an initial matter, it is necessary to determine where the tree is located. Under Illinois law, a tree that straddles a property line is considered to be jointly owned by both property owners. In other words, if any portion of a tree trunk (i.e., where the tree meets the ground) is located on your neighbor’s property, you cannot cut the tree down without first obtaining your neighbor’s consent. You may, however, remove branches overhanging your property that damage your property (e.g., dead branches, branches interfering with your chimney or satellite dish, etc.) as long as it doesn’t interfere with your neighbor’s use of the tree. Similarly, municipalities may trim trees that straddle public streets if the trees damage the street, inconvenience the public’s use of the street, or obstruct the street.
So, what can you do if a tree is located entirely on your neighbor’s property, but its branches or roots cross over onto your property? This situation is more complex. Property owners interested in avoiding trespassing charges cannot walk on to their neighbors’ property and start lopping down trees. Further, Illinois courts have been reluctant to encourage lawsuits stemming from extra leaf raking or roots disrupting flower beds. Instead, courts have indicated that property owners may trim overhanging branches at the property line if the branches damage or harm the property owner’s land.
Courts also impose a duty on the owners of property in residential and urban areas to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm from defective or unsound trees. Stated differently, the owners of residential or urban property must keep an eye on their trees and address dangerous conditions before they become a problem. Notably, this duty does not appear to apply to property owners in rural areas, where properties tend to be larger, with more trees, and more challenging to oversee.
As often is the case, the best advice for frustrated property owners is the simplest: try to come to an agreement with your neighbor before doing any work. In many cases, your neighbor may not be aware that his beloved 40 year old elm tree is peppering your car with a steady torrent of sap. Simply communicating the damage that their tree is causing to you and your property may be enough to fix the problem.
Authored by Greg Jones.  Initially published in Ancel Glink's Local Government News (Fall 2013)


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