By. Dan Rich
Clark, Campbell, Lancaster & Munson, P.A.
As relief efforts remain ongoing, it is evident that hurricane Irma has had a very drastic effect on our local community, with one of the largest impacts being the massive amount of downed trees and vegetation that have been strewn across our community. We all are aware of the dangers of fallen trees; however, in the wake of Irma I thought it would also be helpful to answer some basic legal questions associated with trees, shrubs and vegetation and the liabilities associated with the same.
Can I trim my neighbor’s tree branches if they are growing into my yard? Yes, a landowner has the legal right to trim branches and limbs that extend into their property line. However, Florida law only allows tree trimming up to your property line, and trimming is prohibited if: (i) the trimming requires access to the neighbor’s property; or (ii) the trimming itself will destroy the tree.
A large tree mainly hangs over into my yard, but the trunk is in my neighbor’s yard. Who owns the tree? Your neighbor owns the tree. Currently, the law provides that as long as the tree trunk is wholly in the neighbor’s yard, said tree belongs to the neighbor. But, when the tree trunk is divided by the property lines of two or more people, Florida law refers to the tree as a “boundary tree.” Under a “boundary tree” scenario, all of the associated property owners own the tree and share equal responsibility for it. Removal of a “boundary tree” without the unanimous consent of all owners is unlawful.
Irma knocked down my neighbor’s tree limb onto my property, damaging my house – is my neighbor responsible for the damage? Maybe. Based on current case law, if a lawsuit was brought to recover the damages the court would apply what is called the “reasonable care standard.” Essentially, if your neighbor took reasonable care to maintain the limb, and if a reasonable person would conclude that the limb was not threatening to fall, then the neighbor would more than likely not be liable for any damages. However, if after applying the “reasonable care standard” the court finds that a reasonable person would have or should have known that the tree limb posed a danger of falling, or that the neighbor never did reasonable inspections to maintain the limb, then the neighbor may be liable for negligence, and in turn responsible for the damages to your property.
My neighbor’s tree looks like it’s about to fall, what can I do? As provided above, landowners are responsible for maintaining the trees located on their property. Legally, this creates two duties: (a) conduct reasonable inspections of the trees; and (b) take care to ensure tree safety. Hence, if a neighbor conducts a tree inspection and a branch or the tree itself is objectively determined to be dangerous, then they are responsible for its removal. If the neighbor does nothing and the tree does in fact cause damage, your neighbor can in turn be held liable.
Does the City of Lakeland have any laws in place regarding tree removal? Yes, the City of Lakeland currently deems it unlawful if a landowner: (i) plants a tree, shrub or vegetation within 30 feet of any easement or public way where City sewers are located; (ii) maintains a tree, shrub or vegetation that obstructs the view of any driver of any vehicle on City streets; or (iii) permits a tree, shrub or vegetation to grow to within five feet of any electrical wire that carries 110 volts or more. If one of the above obstructions is observed, the City will provide the owner with time to remedy the violation on their own, then if nothing is achieved the City has the legal authority to step in and remove the tree, if necessary.
Lastly, in 2013 the City of Lakeland passed an amendment to its Land Development Code that essentially prohibits commercial development sites, and newly constructed residential subdivisions from removing certain protected trees. Some examples of these protected trees include Pecan, Sugarberry, Camphor, Sweetgum, Sycamore and Live Oak trees. For an exhaustive list of the trees, please review Table 4.5-6 of Lakeland’s Land Development Code.
As Lakeland fights hard to stand up on its feet again, it is hoped that the information provided herein clears up any questions you may have had about the liabilities associated with trees and other forms of vegetation. It is recognized that the above questions may not address all concerns, and if you have a specific question you are urged to consult an attorney who has particularized knowledge regarding this aspect of property law.