The Most Frequent Tree Complaint

Have you ever stopped to notice and appreciate the urban forest that surrounds us? Whether you live and work in an urban or rural setting, one commonality for all of us is we are surrounded by trees. We easily become accustomed to trees in the landscape and often take them for granted until a tree problem becomes an issue.

When selecting a tree, several factors should be considered to make an informed tree selection. The primary consideration must be functionality. Yes, there should be a reason and function for the tree(s) you want to plant. Functional reasons may include screening, accent, foliage or flower color, winter sun or summer cooling. Functionality also includes choosing the correct tree location that allows proper canopy and root development.

Once the functional and location aspects are resolved, select the tree(s) based on matching tree characteristics to meet your aesthetic and functional requirements.

The most frequent complaint I receive is from property owners complaining about their neighbor’s tree encroaching the shared property line, with Eucalyptus trees not surprisingly being the main culprit.

Trees are not inherently bad or good, dangerous or safe. Like any living organism, each tree species has cultural and growth characteristics that make the tree more or less suitable for a given functional use and location. The Eucalyptus tree has earned a negative reputation due to wild land fires in throughout the world. However, the Eucalyptus tree is the third largest tree genus in the world with over 600 individual species. The tree grows in many different forms, shapes and sizes, some with incredibly beautiful and unusual flower characteristics. The species has acquired a bad rap.

So how did this tree become so “evil”? Eucalyptus trees were hyped with a number of supposed benefits in the early 1900’s. They were imported from Australia as a fast growing hardwood that required little water, all you needed was some land. Once planted and grown, Eucalyptus was found unsuitable for railroad ties and construction. It also consumed far more water than anticipated and certain species were invasive.

Adding to the problem was one of poor selection, using many large growing species for residential and commercial development. While builders and developers wanted to get a quick growing tree for their neighborhoods, they did not consider the ultimate growth characteristics and impact on the property owner.

Fast forward fifty years later; we now have tens of thousands of large Eucalyptus trees planted along streets, highways and residential neighborhoods. It is not uncommon to see 80’ tall trees along a shared residential property line.

The problem is one of incorrect tree selection. Large growing species such as the red, blue or sugar gums are excellent, beautiful and functionally useful species when planted in open spaces settings, their size and scale well suited for background, screening or highlighting.

However, the same tree planted in a side yard less than five feet from a shared property line can only become problematic. When a tree has a natural spread of 30’ and is planted within a few feet a shared property line, the tree canopy and root system will naturally grow over the property line. This is not uncommon, drive down most streets and you’ll notice trees growing across property lines. However, as a tree grows, matures and ages, mechanical and structural changes within the tree create increased risk for a tree part or entire tree to fail. All trees eventually die and fall over; it is only a question of time.

I have consulted with several residential property owners who are forced to live underneath the towering, long tapering branches of massive Eucalyptus trees growing over from their neighbor’s property. In every case, there is tremendous animosity between the neighbors. The tree owner is always strongly attached to his 80 – foot tall trees and never feels there is a problem while the neighbor is in constant turmoil and distress by the daily threat of a large limb falling on their house or worse, a child.

Improper tree selection is not limited to Eucalyptus, as I have consulted on other tree encroachment cases including Melaleuca and Pine trees. However, the one key difference is in the size of the tree(s) and species characteristics. I have commonly encountered 12” Eucalyptus scaffold branch levered 40 feet over a property line due to their growth characteristics but have not encountered a Melaleuca or Pine tree that pose the same growth and risk characteristics.

The property owner is ultimately responsible for the liability created by tree risk. Unfortunately, neighbors seem to have difficulty resolving tree risk issues, disagreements often turning very acrimonious and resulting in lawsuits.

Being an arborist and horticulturist, I love plants and particularly trees. However, as an industry professional, I know poor tree selection is almost always at the heart of tree complaints. In some cases, crown reduction, thinning, and other techniques can mitigate or reduce the risk but in many situations, it is inappropriate to have massive trees planted on residential property lines.

Large size trees (over 60’ tall by 30’ wide) planted within 5 feet of a shared property or boundary line in a residential setting create several issues. The tree is out of scale with the surrounding homes. A tree with a natural spread of 30 feet located next to a property line would result in continual one-sided pruning to keep it from growing over the property line. That would destroy the natural form of the tree and increase the tree risk and liability. Root pruning would be needed to prevent root encroachment which can be almost impossible for older, mature trees surrounded by landscape and concrete improvements.

As a property owner, I would not want to have a neighbor’s 80’ tall Eucalyptus tree growing alongside, let alone over my property. There are hundreds of appropriate tree species to use in residential settings that make wonderful, functional, effective, and aesthetic plantings. Why stick with an old, out of date, inappropriate and potentially riskier tree when there are so many fantastic trees available these days?

Aside from the financial burden of removing an old, inappropriate tree species, why would a property owner accept the increased liability that is created by their tree encroaching the neighbors property, especially a tree known to drop branches?

If you are considering a property purchase, don’t just inspect the house, take a look at all the trees on the property and especially examine your future neighbors trees. If there are very tall trees along the property line, you might have a potential problem.

If you are considering planting a tree, research the tree, understand its growth characteristics and cultural requirements. Consider the location and realize the tree will most likely be there long after you are gone, how will the tree look and function in that spot 20 years from now?

Leave a Reply