Most people enjoy the look of large, mature shade trees on residential properties. They’re pleasant-looking, they add to the attractiveness of a property and the neighborhood, they provide desirable shade, and they can even enhance your and your neighbors’ property values.
But what happens when a mature tree is located near the property line between two neighbors, and the branches overhang the neighboring property? And suppose the tree looks visibly unhealthy and at risk of falling over or may even have been dropping branches onto the neighboring property? Or even if the tree seems perfectly healthy, but one property owner simply does not wish to have their neighbor’s tree branches encroach over their property line? And what if the two neighbors can’t simply “work it out” by mutual agreement? What are the obligations of the tree’s owner, and what are the rights of the adjoining neighbor?
In Pennsylvania, courts have ruled that “encroaching tree parts are a trespass which a landowner may remove.” In other words, if branches of your neighbor’s tree overhang your property, you generally have the right to trim the overhanging tree branches (this is commonly referred to as “self-help”) – but – and this is important – only up to your property line, and no further. And all the work must be performed while on your own side of the property line. So unless you have your neighbor’s permission, you may not trim any part of the tree that is on the neighbor’s side of the property line, and you or your arborist may not go onto your neighbor’s property to do the work.
But note, while you may have the right to trim your neighbor’s overhanging tree branches, proceed with caution! – if the trimming you do winds up damaging your neighbor’s tree, your neighbor could try to hold you financially responsible, and then you and your neighbor could wind up fighting that issue out in court.
Although you technically may not be required to give your neighbor advance notice before you trim the overhanging branches – it’s still a good idea to do so, for at least a couple of reasons. First, if you notify your neighbor that there is an encroachment, or even a potentially hazardous situation, that gives your neighbor a chance to service the entire tree themselves, saving you the headache and expense of hiring an arborist, or the risk that you could be held responsible if the trimming damages the health of the tree. Second, and especially if overhanging branches are creating a potentially hazardous condition, if the tree does cause injury to persons or damage to property on your side of the property line, placing your neighbor on notice of the problem creates a record that the neighbor was aware of the problem, but did not adequately service the tree to prevent the injury or damage from occurring.
Also, sometimes a local municipality may have zoning ordinances that place certain responsibilities on property owners to upkeep their properties in a safe condition, and these ordinances may or may not specifically regulate trees or landscaping – this will vary from one municipality to another. So if you find yourself in a situation where there is a dispute between you and a neighbor over trees or landscaping near a property line, consult with an attorney, who can assess your particular situation and advise you on how best to proceed.