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Elinor Teague on Gardening: Nice trees make nice neighbors

Last winter, we spent several hundred dollars having a certified arborist correct problems with trees along our property line. On one side, heavy branches on the neighbor’s tree were leaning on and bending his fence onto our property and lying on our garage roof.

On the other side of our property, previous owners had planted five California bay trees three feet away from the fence line. The bay trees are now 25 feet tall. The neighbor on that side had hacked off all the bottom branches that overhung his property, leaving ugly spike stumps. With our nice neighbors’ permission, the arborist trimmed back the branches on our roof and those leaning on the fence, removed the dangerous stumps and worked on other branches to rebalance and stabilize the bay trees’ weight. Our adjoining yards are well-shaded by these trees, and we all hope to preserve the shade and privacy without removing them.

We inherited common problems with trees that are planted too close to property or fence lines (they’re not always the same; you might need to check a survey). Not everyone knows that the law regarding neighbors’ rights regarding trees along property lines changed in 1994. Prior to that ruling (California Appellate Court, Booska vs. Patel), a neighbor whose property was damaged by another neighbor’s tree roots or branches could cut them off without consulting the trees’ owners.

Neighbors are now required to act “reasonably” when pruning other’s trees, and reasonably includes first talking to your neighbor. Trees that stand on a shared property line belong to both parties in common and both parties must agree on what’s to be done. Getting permission in writing and having a certified arborist do the work are also considered to be reasonable.

If unauthorized pruning damages the health or structure of the tree, the neighbor who unreasonably pruned encroaching branches or roots may be liable for triple damages (Code of Civil Procedure, Section 733). It can be worthwhile and cost effective to hire a consulting arborist who has special training in these cases to give an opinion that could clarify responsibility and potential issues.

Of course, these problems could have been avoided if trees that were suitable for the space at mature size had been planted in the first place. And if the trees had been planted far enough away from the fence line so that at mature size, their branches did not overhang onto neighboring properties. As a general rule, trees should be planted at least 12 feet away from any structure to prevent roots from damaging the structure. Trees that will grow taller than 25 feet at maturity should not be planted under or near power lines.

The fall months are best for tree planting in our climate. But because newly planted trees require frequent deep irrigation during the first couple of years, most homeowners and businesses are postponing tree planting until rains have replenished our water supply.

If you’re planning on planting trees this fall, make sure you’re well informed on your choices. The Fresno County Master Gardeners has shopping lists for both deciduous and evergreen trees suitable for our climate. The lists include information on mature size, litter, invasive roots, allergens and water requirements. Download the lists at ucanr.edu/sites/mgfresno.

Send your plant questions to Elinor Teague at etgrow@comcast.net or features@fresnobee.com (“plants” in the subject line).

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