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Are tree disputes at the root of your neighbourhood feud?

In this second article in our series about neighbourhood disputes, we’re looking at one of the most contentious of all battles –tree disputes. If you’ve ever visited or lived in a neighbourhood that is enveloped by a canopy of mature trees, then you know exactly how integral they can be to the overall look and feel of the area.

Following the 2013 ice storm in the GTA, the loss of numerous mature trees has completely, transformed many neighbourhoods, much to the chagrin of their denizens.

What causes tree disputes to be particularly sticky is that they challenge the idea of ownership. For many people, the belief is that if something is on their property, it IS their property. By this reasoning, someone may feel that they are entitled to remove a tree, healthy or otherwise if they see fit to do so.  However, this is not such a clear-cut case.

Municipalities all across the country have put by-laws into place to govern any and all matters pertaining to trees grown on private property. As an example, in the GTA, there is  the City of Toronto Municipal Code, Chapter 813, Article III, ‘Private Tree Protection’, colloquially known as the City’s “Private Tree By-law”.

This by-law is in place to regulate the removal or threat of damage done to privately owned trees standing over 1.4 m or measuring at least 30 cm in diameter.

When you want to remove a tree

Trees are frequently at the root of neighbourhood discord. In fact, it is the roots that can cause a lot of the confusion. The issue lies in the fact that trees do not only exist above ground. A tree’s root system and even its trunk can extend beyond property lines. This means that a homeowner may need permission from the tree’s joint owner before the tree can be removed.

Think you can just chop the tree down and ask forgiveness later? Think again. According to Canadian legal website FindLaw Canada, taking matters into your own hands can lead to some hefty fines.

“Unlawful removal of a tree can come with a fine of up to $20,000 or a maximum of three months in jail. Under the City of Toronto Municipal Code, fines can range as high as $100,000” (FindLaw Canada)

Even if the tree is clearly on one person’s property, there are still steps that must be taken before the tree can be removed. Once again, this is where a city’s Private Tree By-Law (or something similar) comes into play.  If the tree on your private property is larger in diameter than 30 cm or greater than 1.4 metres tall then you must obtain a permit from Urban Forestry prior to its removal. However, there are exceptions.

“A tree that is dead, terminally diseased or imminently hazardous does not require a permit, however, the applicant must submit a detailed arborist report to Urban Forestry providing details on the condition of the tree(s) in question.” (City of Toronto)

When you want to prune a neighbour’s tree that crosses your property line

If the branch of a neighbour’s tree has grown over the property line, you do have a right to trim it. However, you may not trim beyond the property line.

When a neighbour’s tree damages your property

There are a few different causes that can lead up to your fence, home, vehicle or other property being damaged by a neighbour’s tree. Each cause comes with a different answer in regard to reparation of damages.

The best-case scenario would see you and your neighbour come to an agreement and settle the matter privately. However, if this isn’t possible, before you end up spending thousands of dollars by taking matters to court, do some homework to figure out if you actually have a case.

If your neighbour took good care of the tree and the tree (or tree branch) didn’t seem like it was threatening to fall, then there’s a good chance that a lawyer may not find them liable.

Similarly, if the fallen branch is the result of something that your neighbour could not have prevented (such as a storm or earthquake, etc), the damage could be considered an Act of God, and your neighbour will not be liable for any damage.

If your neighbour’s tree has not yet fallen, but looks like it might fall, or that a branch might fall, you should take steps to speak to your neighbor about the issue. If afterward nothing is done about the tree, and the tree or branch falls and damages your property, your neighbour may be held liable. Alternatively, to prevent this from happening, you could also file a nuisance claim to have the tree in question dealt with.

Seek Legal Counsel

If a tree dispute arises between you and your neighbour, your first step should be to try and peacefully resolve the matter amongst yourselves. However, if the matter escalates, it is in your best interest to seek legal counsel. As we’d stated previously, taking matters into your own hands is ill-advised.

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