IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Remember that Disney World earworm “We are the World?” Hold that tune in your head as an especially annoying mnemonic device, to remind you that trees that grow on the boundaries between properties generally belong to us all, at least all of us who own the properties on which the tree sits.
Well, maybe just about everywhere except Colorado.
In this case, one neighbor mistakenly planted trees entirely on the property of his neighbor, at least by a few inches. You know what happens when trees grow. These grew so they stood astride the boundary line of the properties.
At least that’s where they stood until the neighbor cut them down. The Rhodigs claimed the trees that grew on both properties were owned as tenants in common. This was important, because the traditional rule was that trees straddling a boundary belonged to both parties as tenants in common. Neither party could cut down the trees without the consent of the other. The Supreme Court of Colorado held that whether the trees grew on the boundary wasn’t as important as what had been the agreement between the parties when the trees were planted. There has to be meeting of the minds as to the planting, the care, or even the purpose of the trees, the Court said, because without an agreement, one party cannot have an ownership interest in something affixed to someone else’s land.
A spirited dissent argued the tradition English rule — that held that trees straddling a boundary belonged to both parties as tenants in common — makes more sense. Certainly, it saves a lot of judicial hair-splitting as to agreements and courses of dealing between two neighbors who were now in court.
Rhodig v. Keck, 161 Colo. 337, 421 P.2d 729, 26 A.L.R.3d 1367 (Sup.Ct. Colo. 1966). The Rhodigs sued Roy Keck for malicious and wanton destruction of four trees which allegedly grew on the boundary line between the Rhodig and Keck properties. Keck admitted removing the trees but alleged that they were completely on his property and that he had the right to destroy them.
When the Rhodigs purchased their property, there were two trees standing near the lot line. In 1943 Rhodig planted two more trees in a line with the first two. Later one of the original trees died and the Rhodigs replaced it. In 1962 Keck, wishing to fence his property to the south of Rhodigs, had a survey made of the lot line. This showed that one tree was entirely inside Keck’s property by three inches; a second tree, 18 inches in diameter, extended four inches onto Rhodigs’ land and was 14 inches on Keck’s lot; a third tree, eight inches in diameter, extended two inches onto Rhodigs’ land and was six inches on Keck’s lot; the fourth tree, which was 16 inches in diameter, was growing five inches on Rhodigs’ land and 11 inches on Keck’s lot. As a result of the survey, Keck removed the trees. Incidentally, the Rhodigs had done their own survey 10 years earlier, and their findings matched those of Mr. Keck. In fact, they had tried to buy a strip of land with the trees from Mr. Keck without success.
The trial court granted Keck’s motion to dismiss at the close of plaintiffs’ case, finding that the Rhodigs had failed to establish that they were owners of the trees. The Rhodigs appealed.
Held: The Court held that the Rhodigs’ contention that they and Keck were tenants in common of the trees did not hold. It said “the trees in question, when planted, must necessarily have been wholly upon Keck’s property and no agreement or consent was shown concerning ownership. The mere fact that the Rhodigs testified that they owned the trees and maintained them is not sufficient evidence to permit a recovery. This is so because they could not own something affixed to Keck’s land without some agreement, right, estoppel or waiver. Apparently a test in determining whether trees are boundary line subjects entitled to protection is whether they were planted jointly, or jointly cared for, or were treated as a partition between adjoining properties. In the instant case none of these attributes was proved by the plaintiffs.”
The Court held that one of the trees — being wholly on Keck’s land — was not involved in the dispute at all. As to the other three trees, the Court said, the Rhodigs had failed to prove a legal or equitable interest in them, meaning that the legal owner of the land — Mr. Keck — had the right to remove the encroachment.
The judgment was affirmed.
Two of the justices dissented, arguing that the majority of the Court had sanctioned conduct on the part of Mr. Keck which constituted a trespass and the destruction of co-owned property. Citing early English common law holding that (1) a tree which stood on a property line made the adjoining owners tenants in common of that tree, and (2) if one of the co-owners cut the whole he was liable for damages to the other, the dissenters argued that the Rhodig trees should come within that well-established rule. “To come within these rules a tree need not have been placed on the property line for the purpose of forming a border or boundary,” the dissenting justices said. “A tree which stands on a property line in a state of nature or one which has been planted by man is treated in the same way.”