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Who is Responsible if a Neighborhood Tree is Obstructing Street Visibility?

When trees and shrubs are not properly maintained, sometimes they can end up blocking our ability to see elements that are crucial to our safety like traffic signs, vehicles on the road, and pedestrians passing by foot or on bicycles. Whoever legally owns the property the tree is on or next to is responsible for keeping said tree from blocking visibility of the road. It is also the property owner’s responsibility to fix any damage caused by the offending tree.

While this may sound fairly straightforward, there are a lot of caveats pertaining to who actually owns a tree. There may also be situations where multiple people have claims to a tree, which can then lead to arguments about who bears the responsibility for taking care of tree maintenance or removal.

Who is Responsible if a Neighborhood Tree is Obstructing Street Visibility

Regardless of who is responsible for rectifying the situation, a commercial tree company will need to be called in to ensure that everything is taken care of properly. However, in order to determine who needs to be the one to call in the commercial tree company and foot the bill for its services, there are a few essential questions that must be addressed and resolved in a satisfactory manner.

1. Is the tree public or private?

While this is not always cut and dry, guidelines in local areas can generally give you a clear answer to this question. If a tree is on public land, then the tree is the local government’s responsibility and any issues arising from said tree should be handled through that entity. However, if the tree is on a mixture of private property and public property, then local ordinances will decide whether the government or the private landowner is responsible for fixing the situation.

If it is determined to be the city’s responsibility, then you should contact local authorities, determine which government agency is the correct one to handle the problem, and submit a maintenance request.

If you want a commercial tree company to come in and see to it that the tree gets removed or pruned, you will likely need the local government’s permission to do so. However, if the tree is determined to be public in any way, the local government may prune or remove the tree at any time, regardless of whether any individual homeowner grants permission.

2. Is the tree owned by a neighbor and sticks out onto your property?

In this case, your property would be considered your domain, so technically you would be within your rights to prune any limbs or branches that extend into your space if they are blocking street visibility or for any other reason.

Keep in mind, while there is generally no permission required to do this, unless you want neighbors who despise you, it is probably a good idea to discuss the issue with them before taking any action. It is always best to try to find a compromise, not only because it displays proper social etiquette, but also because you cannot touch the tree from the neighbor’s side without permission. And, if the tree is harmed or damaged in any way, you could potentially be held liable.

In such cases, destroying your neighbor’s tree could cost you significantly more money in damages than the tree itself was even worth in the first place. This principle would also extend to any damage done to your neighbor’s trees by accident during construction, so always proceed with extreme caution when taking any kind of action.

3. Is it a “boundary” tree?

A “boundary” tree is one that sits on the middle of the property line between two people. When this occurs, the tree is technically the property of both parties. Anytime this is the case, whatever is being done to the tree requires permission from each individual involved.

4. What if a storm causes part of a tree to fall or otherwise obstruct street visibility?

This usually depends on what a judge or arbiter decides. In a case like this, judges typically apply what is referred to as the “reasonable care standard,” meaning if whoever owns the tree in question took reasonable care of the tree before the storm, then the judge will likely rule that the tree’s owner is not responsible due to an “Act of God.”

If this happens, the local government, not the tree owner, would typically be tasked with repairing damages to public property, as well as pruning or removing the parts of the tree that are now obstructing street visibility.

However, if the judge determines that the parts of the tree in question that fell onto public property were already a danger to fall, or that no reasonable maintenance or inspections were performed over a significant period of time, then the private property owner could very well be held liable for the cleanup.

5. What if your neighbor’s tree looks like it is in danger of falling and causing damage to public property or blocking street visibility?

Unfortunately, while it is your neighbor’s duty to take care of that tree, it is difficult to get a tree preemptively removed from somebody else’s property. In a situation like this, your best option is to discuss the issue with your neighbor in hopes that you can come to a mutual understanding.

While a commercial tree company could determine the tree poses a danger, which would force its removal, your neighbor may be unwilling to even subject the tree to that kind of scrutiny. If that is the case and your neighbor will not even discuss it with you, then you may wish to file a nuisance claim with your local courts. The court may not side with you, but if it does, it could force the removal of your neighbor’s tree.

If you’re in Portland and you notice tree branches blocking a stop sign or traffic signal, report the problem by calling the Bureau of Transportation at (503) 823-SAFE or visit this link for additional information on this topic.