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Difficult People: Problems With a Neighbours’ Tree

White picket fence with house behind neighbours tree

Is a neighbour’s tree affecting enjoyment of your property? How to handle it

In the close quarters of many Toronto neighbourhoods, along with larger spaces in the city and in GTA suburbs, neighbourly disputes are common.  Everything from garbage bins to lawn maintenance to loud music can be a thing to argue about, and trees are no exception. Perhaps you’re thinking of cutting your neighbours’ overhanging tree, or there are overgrown branches blocking sunlight. Maybe your neighbours’ tree is damaging your fence or roof, or their roots are creeping under your fence. How can you handle it?

The first thing to know is that you do have the right to prune parts of a tree growing on or overhanging your own property, as long as it will not damage or kill the tree to do so. However, the City of Toronto recommends that, prior to conducting any work on trees that share space, you discuss the issue with your neighbour first

Whose Responsibility Is It?

Your first question should really be whose tree is it? Do you know where the correct property line lies? Many fences or commonly acknowledged property lines differ from the actual property line. Trees with trunks across a property line are considered “boundary trees”, meaning you and your neighbour are considered joint owners of the tree.

Scarborough bluffs neighbour trees from above yards

With issues where the tree poses a danger to your home or property, it gets more complicated. Small trees where the branches or limbs are only causing minor issues or damage are easy to address. A branch or limb crossing the property line can be trimmed back to the property line or, with permission from your neighbour, a more appropriate place on the tree for a pruning cut. Larger trees that straddle multiple properties are much more complicated to deal with and may have significant grey area with regards to the law, liability and ultimate ownership or responsibility should something go wrong or the tree needs to be removed. 

Home and property owners in Toronto are required to maintain their trees to reasonable safety standards. If you feel a neighbour’s tree poses a hazard to you or your property, first reach out to your neighbour to see if the issue can be resolved amicably.

Neighbours’ Trees Blocking Sunlight

If your neighbour’s trees are blocking sunlight, whether it’s a view from your windows or a shady back deck, this will typically be a tree trimming job you’re responsible for footing the bill for. When your neighbors’ trees are blocking garden light, the problem can be particularly annoying for avid gardeners.

Your neighbour is under no obligation to prune or trim their tree for you. If leafy branches over your yard don’t let enough sunlight through to your flower garden or your view is blocked by a tree you don’t like, you’ll have to speak to your neighbour. 

They may be open to trimming their trees or even sharing the cost, particularly if the tree needs other pruning. If they aren’t interested in having their tree pruned, however, you’ll have to respect their wishes and the property line. 

Neighbours’ Tree Damaging Property

Honey locust tree branches on roof of Toronto house

If your neighbour’s tree is causing damage or is a hazard, your neighbour has an obligation to deal with the problem. This includes broken branches, dying branches, and dying or dead trees. Home and property owners are responsible for maintaining their properties to a reasonable degree of safety, and when they fail to do so, they can face fines under municipal by-laws and be compelled to remedy the issue.

If your neighbour’s tree has caused damage or fallen on your property, you should contact your neighbour and document the damage for insurance purposes. If you believe the tree to still be unsafe, or there is a hazard that needs to be removed, follow up by calling an arborist for a consultation. If your neighbour refuses to act to remove the hazard on their property, you may want to call 311 to have a municipal by-law officer assess the situation. It is important to stay calm, document the steps you’ve taken to address the issue, and any costs incurred by you for insurance purposes.

Tree Roots

Tree roots are one of the toughest problems, as cutting a tree root can compromise the health and structural integrity of the tree. If the root issue is minor in nature, such as a root growing under a fence, near the side of a yard, or in another outdoor location, it may be best to leave the root. You do have the right to remove some roots growing onto your property, but unlike with pruning, this is far more likely to cause serious problems, as root removal can cause significant damage to the tree. Not only can removing roots harm the tree’s health, it can make trees unstable and more likely to fall over, raising big liability and safety issues.

With a bigger root problem, such as roots growing into your plumbing or foundation underground, you’ll want to have an arborist assess the issue. Your arborist can assess the roots using a tool called an Air Spade and create a plan to address the problem. If the roots are from a tree that is not your own, involving the owner of the tree is an important first step to ensure a smooth resolution to the problem.

When to Call an Arborist

Neighbour disputes over trees can get heated. Often, it’s best to involve a professional who can remain objective. An arborist can identify the source of the problem and suggest different solutions that balance the rights and interests of both affected parties. Arborists are also trained to ensure damage doesn’t happen to the tree or property near it, and reputable companies will carry liability insurance to cover the work they undertake. The last thing you want in a dispute with a neighbour about a tree is to cause damage to your property or theirs trying to resolve the issue. For this reason, it makes sense to have an arborist do the work and ensure the work is done correctly without damage to the tree or either property.

When you’re in the early stages of assessing a potential neighbour tree problem and you’re not getting a response from the neighbour, you might also consider getting an arborist assessment to determine if the tree is actually a hazard.

How to Resolve a Tree Issue with Your Neighbour

How can you resolve a problem with the neighbour’s tree with your neighbour? Talking to them directly is the most straightforward option, but if you don’t have a good relationship, it’s always advisable to have something in writing. The neighbour needs to be informed about the problem and given an opportunity to fix it.

When a tree needs pruning, you may be able to come to a mutual agreement and share costs. For boundary trees in Ontario, any pruning or removal needs to be agreed upon by both of you

Do you and your neighbours need tree maintenance to keep your yards and your relationship healthy? Contact Vista Tree Management today for a free quote!

8 thoughts on “Difficult People: Problems With a Neighbours’ Tree”

  1. My neighbor expects me to pay for the limbs hanging over my house that would cause considerable damage to my roof.
    The tree is on their property but is telling me that it is my tree as well…My limbs
    I expressed that it is not my responsibility.
    I have contacted an arborist and he told me that it is their responsibility.
    I believe they will only take down the limbs hanging over their house and leave the rest for me to deal with.
    He plans to do it himself with rented equipment.

    1. The arborist you spoke with is likely correct. I am unsure where you’re located – if it is the GTA then that is easier as we are located here. It is difficult to oblige tree owners to do anything short of an obvious hazard or obstruction, for which in Toronto you can complain about to 311 to request a compliance order. He is not obligated to cut the tree for anything other than legitimate safety reasons, I.e. while an individual may fear a tree falling on their house, a Certified arborist may declare it unlikely or safe. It is a complex area, involving insurance, civil law and neighbour relations. In our area of work, while an owner may be obliged by the city or others to prune a tree over the property line due to hazard, the threshold for declaring a hazard is quite high which can mean that, practically, your airspace is your concern. Conversely, this also allows you to properly (I.e. certified arborist) prune trees in the airspace of your property without consulting the owner of the tree, but only to the property line. There are a lot of nuances, if you’re in the Toronto area we can give you a free quotes if you’re outside of it, I would get another opinion from a company either affiliated or members of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), The Ontario Commercial Arborists Assocation (OntarioOCAA.com)or the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) in the states – depending on where you live.

      None of this post is legal advice!

  2. The recent high winds broke a limb of my tree and it fell in my backyard. The limb is rather small, 1.5″ in diameter. The property is in Scarborough, ON. The tree is pruned by proffesionals this spring, few months ago.
    Now my tenants claim thet the tree is unsafe and their usage of backyard is restricted, unless more cutting is done.
    I beleive this is unreasonable demand. What is your opinion?

    1. Vista Tree Management Inc

      Hi Dar,

      It is impossible to know without seeing the tree. A 1.5 inch branch is very small, though still can cause injury. You can ask a couple companies for a quote on mitigating any dangerous aspects of the tree, and talk to the arborists on site to get an idea of whether or not the request is invalid. Not every arborist will take the time to speak with you – some may only provide token acknowledgement and a price or refusal. If the company you had previously was reputable, I’d give them a call and ask the same question.

    1. Vista Tree Management

      Hi D,

      If you are in Toronto and the tree is on the property line, it is likely a shared tree. Your fence may also be considered to be shared. The definition of neighbour or shared tree varies by jurisdiction, and relates to the percentage of the canopy, central roots, or trunk that are over the property line. In many jurisdictions, you are empowered to trim branches that enter the property line when employing certified arborists. There are often better solutions to cutting off a branch of a tree, such as cutting a hole around a branch in the fence to allow it space rather than having it push on the fence. The options and solutions are something that depends on the location and situation. Laws and bylaws around trees with regards to neighbours are complex. It would be best to request an assessment from a certified arborist in your area to get an idea of the options you may have. They may be more limited that you’d imagine, particularly with compelling your neighbour to pay for a service or compensate you – only a lawyer could speak properly to that.

  3. Neighbour cut down his tree leaving a large stump. The large roots of the tree have spread to our property. The roots are now creating a problem as that is where to plan to put our driveway. Roots need to be removed before driveway can be started. Who is responsible for the cost of removing the roots?

    1. Vista Tree Management Inc.

      Hi Jim, if the tree is no longer growing the roots or portion of roots remaining on your property are your responsibility. However, you can remove them without concern of causing damage to the tree since it is no longer there. Depending on the size of the roots they can be dug out, or an arborist may be able to assist with stump grinding.

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