Barker Martin

Condo-HOA Blog

Tree Trouble - Part I, Timber Trespass

One aspect of real property law that I find interesting is how some of the nastiest legal disputes are between neighboring property owners. On one hand, it would seem incumbent upon neighbors to be friendly and cooperative to one another because they are forced to interact regularly.  On the other hand, the likelihood, or at least opportunity, for disputes seems to increase proportionately the closer people live to one another.

Neighbor-to-neighbor disputes come in many varieties, but trees supply the tinder for many disagreements.  Your neighbor may stew in anger for years over a tree that blocks his view before finally grabbing his chainsaw and topping it while you're on vacation.  Perhaps your neighbor gets bent out of shape because the pine needles or leaves from your trees fall on her roof and clog the gutters, so she hires a service to trim the branches above her house without your permission.  Or, what if your neighbor's tree roots are upending your driveway, so you excavate and cut the roots at the property line and kill your neighbor's tree.  The law treats these situations differently.

These problems affect condo and homeowner associations in many of the same ways as single-family homeowners. Neighboring trees may shed on common area open spaces or condo building roofs.  Your neighbor's tree roots can infiltrate your condo's sewer lines.  Knowing how the law treats these issues might help avoid or resolve, rather than aggravate, these problems.

Most of the tree law in Washington is the result of court decisions issued over the years.  In fact, one of the prevailing cases in Washington dates back to the 1920's.  However, there is black-letter law when it comes to cutting or injuring trees on another person's land, referred to as "timber trespass." Here is a link to that statute: RCW 64.12.030.  Oregon has a similar statute which can be viewed here:  O.R.S. 105.810.

The lawmakers in Washington and Oregon were serious about preventing unauthorized, unilateral removal or damage to others' trees.  Both of the statutes listed above provide for triple damages.  And, the Oregon statute even expressly allows an award of attorneys' fees and costs to the prevailing party.

These statutes make clear that cutting down your neighbor's tree without permission can trigger heavy damages. Likewise, if a neighboring property owner, or even a homeowner, cuts down or damages trees on association common areas without permission, a board would be wise to consult experienced association legal counsel because the association may have a claim for money damages.

The timber trespass laws do not cover all tree, branch and root cutting scenarios, however.  In future blog posts, look for information concerning whether it is legal to trim your neighbor's tree branches and roots that grow onto your property (or for them to trim yours), and what to do about dangerous, damaged or diseased trees.