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Trying to Uproot a Backyard Problem

June 13, 1985|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

Question: When we moved here 20 years ago, we had an absolutely breathtaking view of the valley and the mountains beyond. In fact, we bought the house because of the view. Now the view is totally blocked by a neighbor's tree--a tree of no benefit to the neighbor--and it has destroyed our property value. He adamantly refuses to remove the tree and will not allow me to do so, regardless of monetary compensation.

The neighbor's backyard is about 200 feet downhill from mine, and most of the hillside belongs to him. He planted this tree near the top of the hill, a few inches from the fence separating our properties--on his side of the fence, but squarely in the middle of my view. About half the branches and roots are on my side and, incidentally, taking water from my sprinkler system and nutrients from my ground cover. I realize that I could legally cut off the branches on my side of the fence, but this would not open the view and might make the tree spread out even further. Obviously, the neighbor can't see the tree from his house (whereas, from my house, it's all I can see) , and it isn't needed for shade, privacy or erosion control.

'Senseless Aggression'

What are my options (legal and otherwise) for getting rid of this tree? It's an act of senseless aggression, causing mental pain and suffering, robbing me of daily enjoyment and decreasing my property's value. Probably I should first ascertain that the tree trunk is indeed not on my property. How could I determine the exact location of the property line? In hillside developments, are the fences usually on the exact property line?

If I cut down the tree while standing on my side, what can I be charged with, and what is the fine? Are the roots on my side my legal property?

This problem has nothing to do with my attitude toward trees in general. I am a Sierra Club member and love trees. This point is that the neighbor could have put this tree in the middle of his own backyard instead of in the middle of mine.--D.H.

Answer: Next to barking dogs, marauding children and ear-shattering stereos, does anything create more ill will between neighbors than view-blocking trees?

One can read between the lines here and sense that this feud has been simmering for years and that what once might have been settled amicably has passed the point of no return. This would be a dirty shame because all of the "solutions" that come to mind in this sort of antagonistic environment aren't a tenth as satisfactory as a mediated solution would be.

Since (I gather) the two of you aren't even speaking now, isn't there someone in the neighborhood--a mutual friend, one would hope--who would be acceptable as a mediator in working this out?

Whose Property?

Otherwise, the first suggestion that comes to mind is the point that you yourself have raised: the possibility that a land survey would show that the tree is on your property. Then you could dispose of it any way you want. Fences, as surveyor Gene Rutledge of Joel Silverman and Associates, Woodland Hills, points out, "don't really mean too much. It frequently depends on who erected the fence in the first place. Commonly, that person will put the fence a foot inside his property line."

That, therefore, wouldn't do you much good if your neighbor had the fence erected in the first place. It would simply put the tree all that much farther onto his land. If, on the other hand, you had the fence erected--and the tree is close enough to overhang it that much--then it's entirely possible that it is on your land. Unfortunately, Rutledge adds, a survey to definitively establish this point could cost you $1,000 or more--although most surveyors will give you an estimate at no charge. So you might want to explore this.

Agreeing to pick up the cost of having the tree moved (not re moved) to another part of your neighbor's lot "simply isn't practical--not with a mature tree on the top of a hill," according to Paul Hartley, owner of Jerry's Tree Service in Los Angeles. "It would involve a crane, and the cost would be prohibitive."

One lawyer's suggestion: "You might check the County Recorder's Office to see if, at the time the development was filed, there were any covenants, conditions or restrictions incorporated into it that would prevent the planting of anything that would impair the view."

But that, admittedly, is a pretty far-out possibility.

And, from still another lawyer: "The same California law that gives the property owner the right to cut off branches overhanging the property also gives him the right to cut off roots on his side of the line." And that, conceivably, could kill the tree.

"But," she continues, "then the owner of the tree might sue for damages, and there we go again."

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