Robert Frost, in his poem “The Mending Wall,” questions the truth of his neighbor’s assertion that “good fences make good neighbors.” There, Frost ponders that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall …” Trees are things which do not like walls or fences. However, the state of Washington has laws governing neighbors and trees, many of which are the result of court decisions rather than the state legislature.
Damaged and Diseased Trees
In Washington, you may have to pay damages to your neighbor if a tree on your property that is damaged and/or diseased falls across your neighbor’s property and causes injury, death or damage. Your liability exists even if a so-called “act of God” causes the tree to fall. You can also be guilty of trespass if you cut down or trim trees belonging to your neighbor even if you do so by mistake.
Trees Extending Over Boundaries
If there is not a fence or wall separating your property from your neighbor’s property, then you need to make sure before you cut or prune a tree that you know exactly where your property line is. If you intentionally cut down or prune a tree and it is later discovered that the tree was on your neighbor’s property, you can be ordered by a court to pay the value of the tree plus up to three times the value of the tree in punitive damages. Some trees can be valued at more than $4,000.
Rules in Subdivisions
If you live in a subdivision or an area where there is a homeowners association, then you need to check the rules of the association regarding the planting, removal and pruning of trees. Homeowners associations can levy penalties and fines on those who violate easements and views. Sometimes the associations have rules regarding the type and sizes of trees that can be planted.
Trees on Boundary Lines
Trees that start out on your property but grow over the boundary between your property and your neighbor’s property become the joint property of you and your neighbor under Washington state law. You cannot cut down the tree without getting the permission of your neighbor. Likewise, your neighbor has to get your permission to cut the tree back to his property line if pruning the tree will cause damage to the tree.