This is not a substitute for legal advice.
Many of you may have neighbors with trees or bushes growing near the property line. Branches might be impacting equipment you use in fields, growing into property line fences, or dropping branches on your property after storms. The question is often asked, “Can I trim my neighbor’s tree?” The answer at least in the majority of states is that a neighboring property owner has the right to cut tree limbs, bushes, or other vegetation growing over the property line back to the property line. The adjoining property owner cannot trespass to do this and can only trim from his/her property.
The Court of Appeals of Maryland has decided that neighboring property owners are limited to self-help when dealing with adjoining property owners’ trees, vines, roots, and other plants or plant debris come on their property. In Melnick v. C.S.X. Corp., Melnick bought a property that included a warehouse near a railroad right-of-way owned by the B & O Railroad. Melnick experienced property damage to the warehouse due to trees, vines, and other plant life encroaching on Melnick’s property. Keeping the plant life from encroaching required constant maintenance but still damaged Melnick’s warehouse. Melnick sued the railroad seeking damages for the damage to the warehouse.
The court found that neighboring landowners, such as Melnick, are not entitled to damages but are limited to self-help of cutting back the growth. With the right to self-help, a neighboring landowner can only cut back to the property line. A neighboring landowner could commit trespass if he/she entered into the neighbor’s property to cut the growth back. For example, if Melnick crossed onto the railroad right-of-way to trim back vegetation could potentially be considered a trespass unless Melnick had the railroad’s blessing to be on the right-of-way.
This rule adopted in Maryland is the rule followed by a majority of states. Neighboring landowners are limited to self-help to deal with encroaching vegetation, such as trees or vines. Delaware has also adopted the self-help view and found that neighboring landowners have a right to cut encroaching vegetation to the property line. In the Delaware case, Keller v. Oliver, the neighboring homeowner entered the neighbor’s property and cut the tree limbs at the trunk. In Keller, the issue was the number of damages resulting to the trees from cutting branches at the trunk. The neighbor had expert opinions demonstrating that the trees had been damaged by $5,000. The court found that the removal of limbs made no difference either from the property line or the trunk. In this case, the court found for the neighboring landowner and did not award the neighbor any damages.
As I said earlier, this is a frequently asked question that many of you often ask. You may have neighbors’ vegetation growing onto your property impacting equipment with low hanging limbs or vines, etc. The currently the law will only let you remove the vegetation up to the property line. To remove back to trunk, you would need the permission of the neighboring landowner.
Keller v. Oliver, No. CIV.A.80C-JN-10, 1982 WL 590738 (Del. May 17, 1982)
Melnick v. C.S.X Corp., 312 Md. 511 (1988).