Trees: When Property Is Divided

This morning I awoke to the sound of the fence in my back garden being torn down. Stepping outside I saw the ivy growing along both sides of the fence had been ripped away, and the two trees that grow directly against the fence had had their branches severed directly along the property line. Although the trunks of these trees stand on our side of the fence, because our garden is north of the neighbor’s the trees have grown with their branches reaching south toward the sunlight, and a significant amount of each tree had been wantonly removed. After some research I learned that everything that had transpired was legal, unless the trimming of the trees eventually causes them to die. How might this situation have unfolded differently if trees themselves were accorded their own rights, and their legal standing was not contingent upon the rights of the owners on whose land they grow?

Cut Bottlebrush Tree
Cut Bottlebrush Tree

In California a tree is the property of the person on whose land the trunk is growing, even if the majority of the branches extend across a neighboring property line. Legally the neighbor may trim the branches on their property so long as it does not inflict fatal damage to the tree. Although in most states the deliberate injury of a tree is not a crime, in fifteen states including California the intentional damaging of a tree can lead to arrest, fines, or even jail time. However, such damage is not usually prosecuted in residential situations and most often pertains to commercial timber or Christmas tree operations.

The owner of a tree may be compensated if the tree is harmed to the point of fatal damage. Such compensation is to cover the cost of the removal of the dead tree and the replanting of a new one, any loss to the property value that the tree’s loss may incur, and any out-of-pocket expenses paid by the owner in an attempt to save the injured tree. In rare situations the owner may also be compensated for aesthetic loss or mental anguish caused by the tree’s damage or destruction. However, this point is not usually argued if the aesthetic damage to the tree has only occurred where the tree’s branches have crossed the neighboring property line.

All of these laws are based on the premise that land, and the vegetation growing upon it, can be owned by human beings. The autonomy of the tree is not taken into account because the tree is not legally recognized as having its own right to grow. Furthermore, individual trees are also part of a larger ecosystem, providing home and habitat to numerous creatures whose lives will be disturbed and even destroyed if significant portions of a tree are severed. Invisible property lines do not enter into the consciousness of tree organisms and those in symbiotic relationship with them, yet they are punished for trespassing nonetheless, often resulting in harm to their integrity as whole beings. Interestingly, a tree whose trunk stands directly within a property boundary but whose branches cross the property line is more likely to be subject to damage than a tree whose trunk sits upon the property line itself. In the latter case the tree—called a boundary tree—is then the shared property of the neighbors and all care and decisions regarding said tree must be discussed between the property owners before any pruning or removal decisions can be made regarding the tree.

Cut Manzanita Tree
Cut Manzanita Tree

In the biblical story of Solomon and the child, two mothers are arguing over ownership of a child, each claiming to be his mother. Solomon’s solution is to divide the child in half with a sword so each mother may have her equal share. The true mother of the child gives up her claim so that the child might live, and thus has her child returned to her whole and well by Solomon. In the case of a tree it seems a similar argument could be made: the wholeness and integrity of the living, growing tree should be taken into account rather than dividing it, and damaging its potential to live as a whole organism, based on the desires of the humans laying claim to, or authority over, parts of it.

If trees were accorded their own rights and legal standing, and were recognized by law to be autonomous individuals no matter where they grow, then decisions regarding the pruning of the tree would likely have to be made by committee, or with a human individual representing the desires of the tree. The example of the boundary tree, in which all neighbors whose property the tree touches are responsible for its care and well-being, seems like a possible compromise for how to deal with trees whose branches, but not trunk, cross a property line. But in the long term it seems a shift in world view is needed in which the rights of autonomous individuals are according not only to human beings but to the many diverse species that make up our Earth community.

Previously Trimmed and Now Deceased Bottlebrush Tree
Previously Trimmed and Now Deceased Bottlebrush Tree


Nolo: Law for All. “California Law on Property Disputes Between Neighbors.” Accessed March 27, 2014.

Nolo: Law for All. “Trees and Neighbors FAQ.” Accessed March 27, 2014.

Nolo: Law for All. “When A Neighbor Damages Or Destroys Your Tree.” Accessed March 27, 2014.

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