Stately trees can be friends or foes

They provide shelter, produce oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, soak up excess rain, scrub the air of pollutants, create homes for all kinds of critters.

This, Victor Merullo can tell you about trees. As an attorney and nationally known expert on tree law, he can tell you something else: These "emperors of the plant world" — his term — also engender a lot of conflict among neighbors. So much so that Merullo tours the nation at the behest of The National Arbor Day Foundation to lecture about trees and the law. He's done so in Seattle, and more recently in Spokane. "Most people see in a tree beauty, strength and longevity," says Merullo, who studied horticulture in college and practices law in Columbus, Ohio. He also teaches law at 154-year-old Capital University in Columbus. "People treat their trees as part of themselves. They love their trees, but sometimes they don't see the harm their trees could cause."

And cause harm — or at least anguish — they do, as evidenced by the many tree-related questions the Sunday Home Forum column receives every year. Here's a selection of recent queries, along with Merullo's answers. He says Washington has little actual "tree law." Therefore, much of his information is based on state court decisions and the principles of centuries-old common law. "Common law dominates most of tree law," he says.

Q: I have a large oak tree in my front yard. The branches hang over my neighbor's roof, but do not touch it. This neighbor has complained about this and about the leaves from the tree falling in her yard. She says she's going to trim the tree back and send the bill to me. Can she do this?

A: Merullo says the answer is straightforward. Common law gives this neighbor the right to trim your tree's branches back to her property line. She can certainly hire someone to do so if she wishes. However, you have no responsibility to pay that bill unless a court orders it.

Q: We have a row of evergreen trees along the property line. The neighbor on the other side has cut off branches that overhang his property without ever asking our permission. Now he appears to be spraying the tree with something that's killing the needles. How can we prove it's him and what can we do about it?

A: Your neighbor doesn't need your permission to trim back branches that encroach into his yard. But that's only one issue you face. Others are ownership of these trees and the possibility that the chemical spray may ultimately kill them. Here's how the issue breaks down.

First, "whoever owns the tree has control of the destiny of the tree, and if they want to kill it they can do so," Merullo observes. (That's true absent any local laws or regulations requiring that owners get permission to remove trees.) If a tree trunk — at the point where it emerges from the ground — is solely on your property, the tree is 100 percent yours. If the base of the trunk straddles the property line at all, the tree is jointly owned. Such "boundary trees" can't be destroyed or removed unless both owners agree, or failing that, a judge orders it.

As for how you can prove your neighbor is spraying these trees, the easiest way is to ask him. He may well tell you and also tell you what's being sprayed. Otherwise, you'll have to watch him or install a video camera. If the trees are yours and die, and you can prove he killed them, you can sue and potentially collect up to three times their value. Additionally, Washington is one of the few states that allows monetary emotional-damage awards in so-called "timber trespass" cases.

Q: The trunk of my neighbor's large maple tree, which is right on the property line, is literally growing into the side of our garage and slowly pushing the structure over. Last fall I asked this neighbor about removing the tree and said I'd pay half. She agreed, but I sensed she was reluctant. Since then, despite repeated requests, she's done nothing. I don't want to keep pestering her. What should I do instead?

A: Surmising this is probably a jointly owned boundary tree, Merullo suggests you get a bid from a tree-removal firm. Sign it and present it to your neighbor for her signature, with a notation that by signing she agrees to have the tree removed and pay half. "Just going on her word alone is not going to be good enough," he cautions. "You have to have her consent to take down a boundary line tree." If your neighbor won't proceed, you can petition a court to have the tree declared a nuisance, and a judge can order its removal.

Q: A former neighbor planted some cedarlike trees one foot from our dividing fence. They're now 20- to 25-feet tall, growing about 4 feet over the fence into our yard. Is the current owner responsible for trimming his overhanging trees? He'd have to come onto my property to do so. Or can I trim them myself and give him the trimmings to dispose of?

A: Your neighbor has no responsibility for keeping tree branches from growing past the boundary line, but there are things you can do about it. You can certainly ask him to trim them back, and invite him to enter your yard to do so. (Otherwise he'd be trespassing.) Alternately, you may prune to the line (or hire it done). But you can't give him the trimmings to dispose of. These become your property unless the trees' owner asks for them back. Most towns have ordinances, akin to "no dumping" laws, that forbid you from throwing trash on neighboring properties, Merullo says.

Q: A recent windstorm knocked a neighbor's large tree onto our property. Is it true this neighbor has no liability for the cleanup because he cannot he held responsible for the wind? If we're responsible, do we then own the wood? We'd like to keep it for firewood.

A: "If the tree is healthy, in general the courts have held there is no [owner] liability because things happen," Merullo says. However, if this tree was in bad shape, then your neighbor is 100 percent liable, even if the wind was a contributing factor. As for the cleanup, Merullo says your own homeowners policy probably will pay, even though the tree wasn't yours. The law says this fallen tree still belongs to your neighbor, but if he doesn't ask for it back promptly, you may keep it. How promptly is promptly? "Almost instantly," Merullo says, adding, "silence is acquiescence. You can't wait until an apple pie is made to demand your apples back."

Q: The roots of my neighbor's trees and shrubs have intruded into my yard and are clogging my sewer line. I've already spent $400 having the pipe snaked by a plumber. Now it looks like I might have to have the line dug up because of these roots. Whose responsibility is it to pay for this expensive project?

A: As an alternative to digging up your sewer line, Merullo says you can cut off any roots that extend onto your property or put chemicals in the line that will kill these intruders. Otherwise, Merullo says that because this is an ongoing problem, you might be able to get these roots declared a nuisance, in which case a court might put the burden on your neighbor to remedy the problem. This is the same route homeowners can take if a neighbor's tree is damaging their driveway or retaining wall, etc., and the neighbor won't do anything about it.

Q: My neighbor's two Douglas fir trees are very tall and sway terribly during storms. I fear they could fall on my house. What are my rights to demand this neighbor cut these trees down?

A: "In common law, people living in an urban area have a duty to inspect each and every tree on their property to determine if it's a hazard, and if they determine it is a hazard they have a duty to remove it," explains Merullo. So the onus is on your neighbor. If the trees are healthy, you have no right to demand their removal. However, if you suspect otherwise, your best course of action is to hire a certified arborist [tree expert] to examine the firs and write a report. If this report finds that the trees are unhealthy, mail a copy to your neighbor along with a letter stating that these trees are hazardous and need to be removed. You might also point out that insurance companies won't pay for damage that results from negligence. Merullo says that message usually does the trick.

Q: Right now I have a wonderful view. However, in a few years the fast-growing trees a neighbor planted are going to block it. What are my rights to retain my view?

A: Merullo says common law provides no general right to view preservation. However, a few municipalities do have view statutes or ordinances. They're rare (and Seattle isn't one of them), but it's always worth checking to see if your jurisdiction has such a statute. (Your local public library should have a copy of your local laws; additionally, many towns have put theirs online.)

Some neighborhoods have covenants that address views. Usually these neighborhoods are planned communities, and the rules are clearly spelled out. Finally, Merullo says there's one last avenue that can be explored: the concept of a "spite tree." State law allows a court injunction to be granted if it can be shown that a property owner maliciously erected a "structure" to injure or annoy the adjoining landowner. It also must be proven that this structure serves no useful or reasonable purpose. Going forward with such a court suit could prove expensive.

Q: Who owns the trees that grow along city streets, and do I, as a homeowner, have the right to maintain the ones in front of my house?

A: City ordinances usually spell this out, so the answer can vary depending on jurisdiction. In Seattle, for example, the homeowner living nearest the tree is generally responsible for its maintenance, unless the city planted the tree. Then the city takes care of it. However, even if a street tree is privately planted, the City of Seattle may require a permit before major trimming can be done.

Q: Part of the trunk of a large madrona tree overhangs a road near my house. Who has liability if it falls on a car?

A: If the tree is on public property, obviously the local municipality would. If it's on private property, it's possible both the tree's owner and the municipality would share the burden. Ultimately "the city has some liability," Merullo says, for "any tree that could fall in the public right of way. The city has some rights to come onto private property and determine if a tree branch is hazardous."

Home Forum answers readers' real-estate questions. Send questions to Home Forum, Seattle Times, P.O. Box 1845, Seattle, WA 98111, or call 206-464-8510 to leave a question on a recorded line. The e-mail address is Sorry, no personal replies. More columns at