In Good Thyme

"Recently I received a query from an Island County homeowner who is concerned about problem alders. The trees in question are growing on the neighboring property of an absentee owner. The homeowner is concerned because they lean over her property, cast deep shadows on her garden, and their falling leaves are a nuisance to clean up. Her major concern, however, is that the trees might blow down in a winter storm and damage her property. She says she has written to the owner several times to express her concerns, but her letters go unanswered. She therefore wants to know if she is within her rights to cut down at least the portion of the trees that extend onto her property.Master Gardeners know how to solve a lot of tree problems, but unless the Master Gardener happens to be a lawyer, not this particular dilemma. That's why I referred this question to Oak Harbor attorney James Kotschwar, who specializes in real estate and business law and estate planning. His reply follows:Your reader raises a fairly common question; specifically, what are her legal rights with respect to the trees on her neighbor's property. She is concerned because of the unwanted shade created by the trees, the leaves that fall on her property, and the damage which could possibly result if the trees were to blow down in a storm onto her property.Your reader would not, of course, have the right to cross the boundary line herself without permission and cut down the alders on the adjoining property, even though the property is owned by an absentee owner. To do so would constitute trespass and under Washington law, could result in her having to pay treble (three times the cost) damages to the neighbor.When the trunk of a tree is located on a neighbor's property, one may legally cut encroaching limbs, branches and roots back to the boundary line. The fact that the trees create shade, that leaves blow across the line, or that the tree could conceivably be blown down in a wind storm would not normally give one the legal right to demand the removal of a neighbor's trees. However, if the tree, shrub, or vegetation in question were noxious, i.e., poisonous or destructive of health, one may have grounds to petition a court to order the owner of the adjoining property to remove it. Further, were a tree to blow partly down and lean in a threatening way toward one's property, fences, etc., one would generally have the right to have the neighbor remove the tree. If the neighbor refused, after being notified of the situation, a court order would probably be available.Trees, shrubs, or hedges which stand directly on the boundary line, partly on both properties, ordinarily belong to both property owners. Neither party may damage or destroy such commonly-owned items without the permission of the other owner. However, if possible without doing permanent damage, one may cut them back to the boundary.In some subdivisions, there are covenants and restrictions which might apply to trees and other landscaping items, possibly giving authority to the homeowners' association to regulate such matters. I suggest that your reader check to see whether that is true in her case.In matters involving neighbors, most attorneys advise their clients to try to work with their neighbors to find a satisfactory solution to the problem and to turn to legal procedures only if all else fails. Life is too short to be embroiled in disputes with neighbors and such disputes can seriously detract from the joys that gardening and landscaping usually produce.How true, Mr. Kotschwar! This type of situation is all too common , and can cause unpleasant situations of the Hatfield and McCoy variety. I know of an ugly, ongoing dispute over bamboo growing rampant under a fence into the neighbor's rose bed. My own situation concerns the Canadian thistle that seems to be invading Island County this year. My husband and I have been cutting and spot-spraying that nasty, prickly weed on our rural acreage much of the summer. Ugh, what an awful job it is! But if we don't attempt to control it, it will go to seed and overrun the neighborhood.Robert Frost said, Good fences make good neighbors, but trees, shrubs, vines and weeds don't respect man-made barriers. It's up to us to keep the vegetation contained, and the lawyers on the other side of the garden gate.---------------August garden tipDon't let your garden dry out! If it doesn't rain, provide your plants with a minimum of an inch of water per week, more during particularly warm weather. The best time to water is early morning. --------------Mariana Graham, a writer and former editor, is a Master Gardener certified through the WSU-Island County Cooperative Extension Service.If you have questions or comments, contact her at the Whidbey News Times, 675-6611; fax 675-2732; or e-mail "

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