Case of the Day – Wednesday, January 30, 2019

BELLYACHING

When I was a kid, we had a magnolia in the backyard that my father would fume about at least twice annually. He called it “the mess tree.”

When I finally owned a backyard with a magnolia of my own, I understood. The tree is a thing of beauty every spring… for about 24 hours. Then the petals fall in a slimy, stinky mess. In the fall, the magnolia’s leaves turn from green straight to a uniform, blah brown, and then fall in a thick blanket that is resistant to most leaf rakes and machines of any size.

At least I bellyache about my own trees. What happens when your neighbors start to complain about your trees, which – while remaining on your property – mess their yards with leaves, twigs and general mess?

We all know at least the first prong of the Massachusetts Rule. A property owner has the right to trim back overhanging branches and encroaching roots of a tree standing on his or her neighbors’ yard, at least back to the property line. The second prong of the Rule, of course, is where all the variations arise. In Massachusetts, the neighbor cannot sue. In other places, the neighbor can. And even where nuisance actions are contemplated – think Mr. Houlton’s banyan tree in the famous case that begat the Hawaii Rule – at what point does a tree’s general messiness (leaves, pine cones, fruit, twigs and the such) cross the line from unremedied annoyance to actionable nuisance?

The Massachusetts Rule’s self-help provisions do not do a neighbor much good if the tree stands wholly on the next-door property. There is no trimming or root-hogging that will keep wind-blown twigs, leaves, fruit and other debris from raining onto your property.

Is there nothing that can be done? How many times have we noted that hard cases make bad law. Today’s case provides yet another illustration of the truth of this old saw.

John Leech apparently took Dorothy’s mantra to heart, believing there was no place like home. So when he and his wife had the chance, they moved into John’s boyhood home. There they lived, happy and proud (especially of the majestic coastal redwood tree in the side yard, already 80 years old or so).

John remembered the tree from when he was a boy. He nurtured it as an adult. But about 18 years after he and Brenda returned to reside in the house in which John had grown up, the Boyles moved in next door.

The Boyles never said a word to John or Brenda about the coastal redwood. But they were plenty agitated that the tree dropped pine cones and other debris on their yard, and in the process stained everything a sticky, unappealing brown. You would think that the neighbors might engage the tree’s owners in pleasant conversation, looking for a mutually acceptable solution to the problem. If so, you would be thinking wrong.

Terri and Kent Boyle might be great people, but their conduct as neighbors was as puzzling as those people who buy a house a quarter mile from the threshold of the primary runway at O’Hare and the complain about the noise. And puzzling not just to me, either. It is hard to read the Court’s opinion that John’s and Brenda’s tree was not a nuisance without concluding that the Court was a little put out that the Boyles never bothered to discuss the problem with their neighbors, but rather hired an expert and then ran for the courtroom.

Besides, there is something vaguely unjust that a couple of Johnnies-come-lately can move in, and within a couple years demand that a tree that had stood for 80 years on land inhabited by the same people for over 20 years (and more, when the lord of the manor was a mere stripling), be chopped down, all because they did not like it.

I have the sense that if the Boyles had sought a collegial solution, resorting to litigation as a last resort, their petition might have been greeted with less skepticism.

Ah well… hard cases make bad law.

Boyle v. Leech, 2019 Wash. App. LEXIS 224 (Ct.App. Washington, Jan. 28, 2019). John Leech lived at his current residence as a child in the 1950s. He and his wife Brenda moved back to the property in 1995, and have lived there for the past 24 years.

From the time John was a child, a large coastal redwood tree has grown on the property, about 70 feet from the boundary line the Leeches share with their neighbors Theresa and Kent Boyle. The branches of the stately tree do not come closer to the property line than about 50 feet.

The Boyles moved into their home in July 2013. Soon enough, Terri and Kent noticed that the wind blows debris from the Leeches’ tree onto their property. Sometimes, the debris, which contains tannic acid, causes staining. The staining does not remove easily, requiring power washing or strong cleaning products to remove.

The Boyles hired Brian Allen, a certified arborist, to inspect the coastal redwood. Brian determined that the tree “is dying slowly,” causing excessive sap and cone production. Despite this diagnosis, the tree is not currently considered high risk. On a one-to-ten health scale (one being the highest risk, with the potential for critical failure at any moment), Brian ranked the health of the tree as close to seven. Brian recommended that, “due to client’s motivations, and the potential for continued and worsening damage to surrounding property, removal is recommended.”

Inexplicably, Terri and Kent never complained to the Leeches about the coastal redwood. Rather, they filed a nuisance action against the Leeches, asking for $5,000 in damages and for a court order that the Leeches abate the nuisance by cutting down the tree. When the Leeches recovered from their shock at being sued, they moved for summary judgment, arguing the Boyles failed to establish a prima facie case of nuisance. The trial court agreed, throwing out the Boyles’ lawsuit.

The Boyles appealed.

Held: The Leeches have acted reasonably by keeping the tree, which is entirely on their property, without complaint from anyone before the Boyles. The Boyles’ claim of nuisance thus fails as a matter of law.

RCW 7.48.010 defines “actionable nuisance” as including a number of specific events, such as obstructing a highway or clogging a stream with floating timber, and includes a “catch-all” provision that holds “whatever is injurious to health or indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to essentially interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of the life and property, is a nuisance.”

In Washington, the Court said, “an unreasonable interference with another’s use and enjoyment of property” constitutes a nuisance. Thus, in nuisance cases, the trial court mainly considers whether a party reasonably uses his or her property, balancing the rights, interests, and convenience unique to the case and considering all the surrounding facts and circumstances.

Here, the Court observed, the tree was growing entirely on the Leeches’ property, without any branches overhanging roots encroaching on the Boyles’ yard. The tree is about 80 years old, or any underground Leech believes the tree has been on the property for 80 years. Aside from the Boyles, no neighbor has ever complained to John or Brenda about the tree.

The Boyles described the tree as “a dying tree shedding toxic debris,” but their expert evidence only opined that the tree is dying slowly, but remained relatively healthy. The tree’s debris may have been “excessive,” but it was in no way toxic. Arborist Brian Allen only explained there was a “potential” for continued damage. He recommended the tree be cut down only because that was what his clients, the Boyles, wanted.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the Leeches did not act unreasonably with regard to the tree, especially given the redwood was located entirely on their property. Thus, there was no nuisance, and the Leeches would not be required to remove the tree to prevent staining from occurring on the Boyles’ property.

The Court admitted that no case it could find in Washington or any other state addressed a nuisance action regarding a tree situated wholly on someone else’s property. In Gostina v. Ryland, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that overhanging tree branches or encroaching roots onto a neighboring property constitute nuisances, and that the offended party could cut back any tree branches or roots that intrude onto his or her property. But in dicta, the Gostina court noted, “[t]he remainder of the trees will doubtless shed their leaves and needles upon the [plaintiff’s] premises; but this they must endure positively without remedy.” As well, the Court of Appeals said, in Whitesell v. Houlton – the case that adopted the Hawaii Rule – that court was careful to exclude from the definition of nuisance a tree that only was “casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit.”

Certainly, the Court of Appeals ruled, “if natural debris from an overhanging tree should not constitute a nuisance, neither should such debris from a tree that does not encroach onto neighboring property… Wind blowing natural debris from the Leeches’ tree causes staining on the Boyles’ property. We decide that this – debris from a tree wholly on another’s property – does not constitute a nuisance.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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