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Speaking of Nature: Property line disputes

Published: Monday, Aug. 11, 2014 11:38 a.m. CDT

I heard a story the other day about a situation where one neighbor did not like another neighbor’s pine tree because the branches grew over part of his yard and he thought the roots were going to crack his foundation. So, the fellow cut all the branches on his side of the tree back to the property line, and then dug a trench along the property line to sever the tree’s roots.

Shortly thereafter, there was a big storm and the pine tree blew over onto his house. I guess he got what he wanted… kind of….

Property line disputes are common. Trees, fences, ATVs and lawn mowing were common themes on the Internet when I looked up “property line disputes.”

The Land Conservancy of McHenry County holds several parcels of land that preserve natural areas within subdivisions, so we have plenty of neighbors. Most of those neighbors are lovely people who appreciate living next to nature and respect the property line between their backyard and the natural area. However, once in a while a neighbor decides to extend his or her “property” into the natural area.

The most common encroachment we see is lawn mowing. Personally, I wouldn’t want to mow any more lawn than absolutely necessary, but some folks like mowing so much they mow many feet – 20 or more – into the adjacent natural area. They mow past signs. They mow after being asked – politely – to stop. I have no idea why some people choose to use someone else’s property, but they are “kind of” breaking the law.

So are the folks who decide that “nature” won’t mind if they dump their yard waste into it. For the record: bags of leaves, broken plastic pots, mounds of grass clippings, etc. do not help natural areas.

Now, let’s get back to trees.

As I discussed in a previous blog, in Illinois, the property owner owns any tree whose trunk is located completely on his or her land. And, the tree includes the branches, trunk and roots. If the trunk is even partly on a neighboring property, then the tree is owned jointly by the two neighbors.

These facts are important to keep in mind when faced with a dispute involving a tree and a property line. Another concept that seems helpful is that one is not permitted to do anything to someone else’s tree that would harm the tree’s health or change its shape unless the tree can be declared hazardous and dangerous. If the tree is owned jointly, then decisions about the tree must be made jointly by the two parties.

In the pine tree situation, the neighbor who removed the branches and severed the roots was wrong to do so. The trunk was completely on his neighbor’s property and he did not have the neighbor’s permission to cut the branches. Similarly, he did not have permission to cut the roots.

The pine tree was healthy and had a symmetrical shape. By pruning the branches back to the property line, he altered the shape of the tree and probably its health. By severing the roots, he harmed the tree’s health. And ultimately, the tree repaid him for his effort.

Try not to let a similar situation happen between you and a neighbor. Talk boundary issues out with the neighbor, and if that is unsuccessful, get your city code officer or an attorney involved.

Lisa Haderlein writes the Speaking of Nature blog. She is also the Executive Director of The Land Conservancy of McHenry County. You can reach Lisa at lhaderlein@conservemc.org.

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