Question: My neighbor has a large tree close to the property line separating our backyards. It is a nice-looking tree that provides some privacy screening between our two lots. The branches, however, hang over into my yard and are very close to the power line that crosses my property and services my home. I spoke to someone at the utility company about taking care of the tree, and they told me that it would be my responsibility to handle it. Is it my responsibility to trim the tree on my neighbor’s property? Shouldn’t my neighbor be responsible for his own tree?
Answer: State law requires clearance of tree branches from power lines regardless of whether the power lines are on public or private property. Pacific Gas and Electric offers a “make safe” service in which they will trim the tree to the extent necessary to address the danger. If you call them for this service, they will treat it as an emergency and act quickly to address the problem.
Since you indicate that you have already called PG&E, I assume that what PG&E meant was that the responsibility for pruning the remainder of the tree — i.e. the branches beyond the immediate area of the power line — belongs to the property owner.
When your neighbor’s tree has branches that hang over on your side of the property, you have the right to trim those branches. You are allowed to employ “self-help” measures, and you do not have to obtain a court order. Trim wisely, however, because you may be liable if your pruning of the branches causes harm to the overall tree.
Your question seems to be about who should pay for the pruning of the tree — you or your neighbor. Your neighbor owns the tree, and the branches that are coming on to your property constitute a nuisance. If you took him to court, your neighbor could bear the liability for the nuisance that the tree creates. So you could argue that he should pay all of the costs because it is his tree. But that said, you may want to offer to contribute to the costs of pruning so that you can have a say in who is hired to trim the tree.
There are significant risks in allowing an unlicensed contractor onto your property to perform a job. Trimming trees close to power lines requires specialized training and tools. Mistakes can result in severe injury or even death. As a property owner, if an unlicensed contractor is injured, the law treats that person as your employee. You may be personally liable for any injuries. You do not want to take that risk. So it might be advisable to bend a little and share in some of the cost for the assurance that a licensed contractor-arborist is hired.
You should talk to your neighbor to make him aware of the problem. Let him know that you are calling PG&E to address any possible immediate danger. Chances are he values the tree and the privacy it provides as much as you do. If he offers to take care of it himself, then make him aware of the need for a licensed arborist to protect the two of you from any liability. If he complains about the additional cost, then you may want to offer something so that the two of you hire the right person.
Preston Morgan is a partner at Kopper, Morgan & Dietrich, a Davis law firm providing family law, estate planning and trust litigation representation. His column is published every other week in the Davis Enterprise. To pose a question to Preston Morgan, contact him at https://kopperlaw.com.
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