SELF-HELP MEETS CATCH-22
Those of us old enough to remember the ‘60s – and if you were around then, you probably were in such a state that you don’t remember them – recall Joseph Heller’s book, Catch-22. The short rocket is this: the “Catch 22” is simply this – if one is crazy, one can be relieved from flying combat missions. But one has to apply for the discharge, and applying demonstrates that one is not crazy. As a result, one will not be discharged.
The Catch 22 typifies “bureaucratic operation and reasoning,” which brings us to today’s conundrum. An alert reader in Toad Lick, Arkansas, wrote to complain that a branch from his neighbor’s oak tree hangs over his property to a great extent, dropping leaves and acorns. He says it’s so big and long that it’s a hazard, and he fears that it will fall on his children. What, he wonders, can he do?
Oh, yawn, you say. Being a faithful reader of this blog, you immediately recognize that the solution to this is the Massachusetts Rule, which permits a homeowner to use “self-help,” trimming the branches back to his property line. Ah, but there’s a twist to this particular problem. If our afflicted homeowner trims to the property line, he will leave a six-foot or so stub of a branch because he cannot go onto the neighbor’s property to trim the branch all the way to the trunk. The city, he tells us, requires that the branch be trimmed all the way to the trunk, or it will fine him.
At this point, the notion of a lousy $25 fine leaves you still unimpressed, and you’re about to click off this blog for one of those Internet sites that no one admits to checking out, but we all do, anyway. Not so fast. It gets better. Our homeowner complains that the City’s fine for improper trimming is $400 per inch of diameter of tree, and the diameter of the offending oak (at 4 feet above the ground) is something like 36 inches. That’s right, he’s looking at shelling out $15,000 in fine (plus tree trimming costs), all to cut down a single hazardous branch.
Or so our afflicted correspondent says. Frankly, we were perplexed by his report. If things were as our complainant said they were, one effectively could not exercise self-help without his or her neighbor’s cooperation. That seemed to eviscerate the Massachusetts Rule, taking the “self” right out of “self-help.” It’s the classic Catch 22 – you cannot exercise self-help without your neighbor’s cooperation, which – if you can get it – pretty much makes it anything but self-help.
Years of law practice have made us acutely aware of a sad fact of life: clients get it wrong. They get it wrong all the time. You could be cynical and say that clients lie, but we would never suspect that. Indeed, you don’t have to go that far. Whether they’re simply confused, perceive it incorrectly, or flat out fib, the result’s the same.
Here, the Toad Lick City Code tells a somewhat different story. The ordinance requires that any trimming in the city has to be done according to ANSI Standard A300, which sets out best practices for tree maintenance. If a trimmer adheres to the standard, what happens to the tree is not his or her fault. If the trimmer does not trim to the ANSI standard, and the tree later suffers “substantial destruction” – that is, it is killed or becomes a hazard tree – the trimmer is liable. So our homeowner’s trimming won’t lead to a fine unless the tree is “substantially destroyed.” And that will take a few years to determine.
Talking to the Toad Lick City Forester’s office, we found out a few other facts as well, details our correspondent homeowner overlooked telling us. It appears that our afflicted complainant may not be all that concerned with the fate of his children playing under the branch. Instead, he wants to build a swimming pool, and the branch is directly over the new installation. What’s worse, the branch spoils his view.
Whew! We haven’t had a problem like this since a law school final exam. Where to start? First, our unhappy pool-building homeowner should hire an arborist. If the arborist agrees that the branch is a hazard, our man is on much more solid ground. The neighbor should be placed on notice of the hazard determination, and the neighbor’s insurance company should be told, too. We bet the insurance company will convince the recalcitrant neighbor to let our homeowner trim to A300 standards without a whimper of protest.
But what if the branch isn’t a hazard (as we’ve heard)? Our homeowner might still have an arborist trim it to the property line according to accepted industry standard (if such a thing is possible). If it is not, our homeowner may have to risk lopping the branch off at the property line, and hoping that the tree doesn’t die. If it does, the City is going to assert that it was the homeowner’s improper trimming that caused the hazard (or death).
We suspect our homeowner won’t find an arborist who will cut the branch other than at the trunk (which cannot be done without the neighbor’s OK). If the homeowner is going to go ahead with the pool, he may just have to cut the branch at the property boundary and hope for the best. If the tree withers and dies within a few years of the surgery, well, then, he has a problem.
That should not be surprising. Even without the city ordinance, the suggestion has often been made that Massachusetts self-help requires first that the overhanging branches be doing more than just causing shade or dropping leaves. In Herring v. Lisbon Partners, the court suggested that Massachusetts self-help was only available when the overhanging branches or intruding roots were doing more than your average tree: that is, they were a danger or a nuisance, breaking up pavement or damaging roofs. It could well be that courts will rule that self-help isn’t available merely to improve the view (although such a ruling hasn’t come down anywhere just yet).
Thus, it could be that our homeowner really isn’t entitled to do much of anything if he cannot get an arborist to certify that the branch is doing more mischief than your average branch. Endangering kids is one thing: spoiling a view is something else. If the branch is a hazard, the homeowner might have a defense to trimming it to the property line, even if the tree dies – the defense of necessity.
Our complaining homeowner told us that he doesn’t want to end up in a lawsuit, or defending himself from a $15,000 fine. That’s perfectly understandable. In that case, his best course is obvious, if the branch is a hazard (as he says it is). If his arborist will give him an opinion that the branch is a hazard, the homeowner should make sure the neighbor and the neighbor’s insurance carrier are both aware of that. Certified mail, return receipt requested, would be prudent. We suspect our homeowner will be happily surprised at how quickly the insurance carrier persuades his neighbor to cooperate.
Lawrence Peter postulated the idea years ago as a corollary to the Peter Principle: pull is always stronger than push. If our homeowner gets the neighbor’s insurance company on board, he’ll have a lot of pull.
Fine aside, could our homeowner be liable for causing substantial damage to his neighbor’s tree by not trimming according to A300 standards? Remember, our complainant wants to avoid litigation, trimming away the offending branch in a way that leaves him legally bulletproof. Even without the city’s statutes requiring trimming in compliance with A300, yesterday’s Booksa case from California should serve as a cautionary tale.
We have previously determined that California generally recognizes the Massachusetts Rule, which permits a neighbor to use “self-help,” trimming the branches back to the property line. Of course, California seems also to permit use of the private nuisance laws — something that seems like the Hawaii Rule or Virginia Rule — to let a homeowner like our correspondent force someone like his neighbor to remove the branch himself if it is a nuisance.
You recall that Mr. Patel was unhappy that the roots from Mr. Booska’s pine tree had heaved some of Mr. Patel’s sidewalk. He excavated along the edge of his yard down to three feet, severing the roots of the pine tree that had encroached under his sidewalk. The root cutting so weakened the tree that it started dying and was in danger of falling. Mr. Booska had to take the tree down, and he promptly sued.
The lower courts said that Patel had an absolute right to cut the roots on his property, citing the holding in Bonde v. Bishop. Not so, said the appeals court. Instead, Mr. Patel had an obligation to cut the roots in a reasonable manner that would achieve his aims — to stop sidewalk heaving — without undue harm to the tree. The Court held that “no person is permitted by law to use his property in such a manner that damage to his neighbor is a foreseeable result.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t the final answer. The Booska court was swayed by testimony that Mr. Patel could have protected his sidewalks with a much less aggressive method. We don’t yet know what the result would be if the only means of protecting Mr. Patel’s sidewalk would have required cutting that would necessarily be fatal, but our correspondent could provide us with the answer if he lands in court over cutting the branch to the property line but not in accordance with A300.
In the situation our writer presented to us, his explanation for wanting the branch removed clashed with what the city understood the real motivation might be. In discussions with his arborist, our neighbor will have to consider whether the branch could be found to be a nuisance, a finding that Bonde suggests can be easily made in California. Even if it is not a nuisance, our correspondent maybe can start hacking away on his side of the property line, but the hacking should be done according to A300. Assuming that it cannot be (because the neighbor won’t permit trimming to the trunk), the trimming has to be done in a way that weighs our correspondent’s legitimate aims — whatever they are — against the health and safety of the tree. And preserves the tree, thus avoiding the $15,000 fine.
Oh, the complexity! And to make it worse, next Tuesday we’ll look at a Kafkaesque result where a neighbor’s right to cut back a tree can’t be exercised without approval of the property owner, resulting in an old-fashioned California SLAPP-down.
Not to sound like the Bar Association, but we suggest that all of these legal gyrations well illustrate why spending a few bucks at your local counselor-at-law might be prudent – not just in California, but wherever you live.
Booska v. Patel, 24 Cal.App.4th 1786, 30 Cal.Rptr.2d 241 (Ct.App. Div.1, 1994). Read the Booksa decision again, or review our synopsis of it in yesterday’s Case of the Day. And if you’re caught up on all of your Kardashian reading, you might want to consider Herring v. Lisbon Partners once again, too.
– Tom Root