The late Steve Jobs — whose equipment we use in running treeandneighborlawblog.com — exhorted us all to “think different,” by which he meant “buy Apple products.” Since his death, Steve’s life became a best-seller and a major motion picture… but like its competitors, Samsung, Google and Microsoft, Apple’s brand has tarnished a bit as of late.
Notwithstanding Steve’s Einsteinian advice, our late mother – a retired English teacher – used to lecture us that Apple really meant “think differently.” No matter.
Today, we’re taking a fresh look at the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in Fancher v. Fagella, the seminal 21st century case on tree encroachment. In so doing, we re-read the old Smith v. Holt decision that is credited with first adopting the old Virginia Rule 76 years ago. And we’re thinking different about it.
Initially, we confess, we joined with the Virginia Supreme Court and commentators in ridiculing Smith v. Holt’s focus on whether a tree was “noxious” or not. We liked the newer Fancher approach, which the Washington Post, after all, hailed as breaking new ground. But now, after revisiting Smith v. Holt and considering the 19th century cases on which it was based, we’re wondering why Virginia ever thought the Fancher decision was necessary at all. Thinking different … can an Apple Watch be in our future?
Over the years, the law on what a neighbor may do with encroaching trees branched into three or four divisions. The flinty self-reliant New Englanders have followed with the Massachusetts Rule, a holding that landowners may resort to self-help to stop encroaching trees and roots by trimming them back to the property line, but the courts are not available to hear encroachment disputes if self-help is not adequate. At the other end of the United States (and 50 years later), Hawaii adopted what is unimaginatively known as the Hawaii Rule, a holding that while Massachusetts Rule-style self-help was always available to a landowner, so were the courts: landowners could sue to collect damages and to force a neighbor to trim or remove a tree when that tree was causing actual harm or was an imminent danger to his or her property.
The disrespected Virginia case on the issue, Smith v. Holt, was in fact forward-looking and logical: in essence, Smith v. Holt adopted the Hawaii Rule years ahead of the Ahola State, and did so with law which — had the Virginia courts not acted so precipitously in Fancher v. Fagella — would still be the law in the Old Dominion.
Smith v. Holt was the 1939 decision — handed down only eight years after the Massachusetts Rule was adopted in the Bay State — that the Virginia Supreme Court repudiated in its 2007 Fancher decision. In Smith v. Holt, the Virginia Supreme Court reviewed a dispute in which a neighbor’s private hedge had grown over the years to the point that it was growing on the complaining neighbor’s lawn and shading a large portion of it. The Court held that the Massachusetts Rule should apply unless the hedge in question was (1) causing actual harm or was an imminent danger to the neighbor; and (2) was “noxious.” Because Mrs. Smith had not shown that actual harm was being caused, the Supreme Court declined to order Mr. Holt to remove the hedge. The Smith v. Holt holding was seen at the time as a variation on the Massachusetts Rule — although we doubt that it was any real departure from the implied limits of that rule — and became known as the Virginia Rule.
In Fancher v. Fagella, the Supreme Court abandoned the Virginia Rule it adopted in Smith v. Holt. We think this abandonment was unnecessary, premised on a misunderstanding of its own holding 68 years earlier. The adoption of the Hawaii Rule is happening increasingly throughout the United States, and probably is as inevitable as urban growth. However, the Virginia Supreme Court’s overturning of Smith v. Holt was an over-reaction predicated on its own misunderstanding of what is meant by a “noxious” tree. Even in the Massachusetts Rule decision eight years before, the court had cited a 19th century New York decision that held “[i]t would be intolerable to give an action in the case of an innoxious tree whenever its growing branches extend so far as to pass beyond the boundary line and overhang a neighbor’s soil.” The Massachusetts Rule was never intended to extend noxious trees. And what the Smith v. Holt court meant by “noxious” was clear in the context of that case. The court relied on an 1884 Mississippi case in which a mulberry tree was held to be “noxious” because its roots had penetrated and contaminated a neighbor’s well. There was nothing inherently poisonous about the tree: it was just growing in such a way as to cause real harm to the neighbor, beyond mere shade and encroachment. In fact, in the only Virginia case ever to rely on Smith v. Holt -— the case we’re reviewing today — a trial court found in 1990 that “under the circumstances of this case, the “mock” or “osage” orange trees are noxious.”
So it’s clear that whether a tree is “noxious” has nothing to do with the inherent characteristics of the tree or hedge, but has everything to do with where the tree or hedge at issue is located and what it is doing to the neighbor. And that is the classic definition of a nuisance given by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1926 case: “merely a right thing in the wrong place, like a pig in the parlor instead of the barnyard.” A noxious tree is a perfectly good tree, but one in the wrong place causing actual, substantial harm, or threatening the same.
But the Fancher Virginia Supreme Court ran off on a tangent, talking about kudzu and poison ivy when it is clear that the courts that first enunciated the “noxious” standard meant nothing more than a tree that was causing or threatening real harm. Ironically, under the Hawaii Rule adopted in Fancher, the plaintiff would have done no better than she did in Smith v. Holt. The hedge she complained about in 1939 wasn’t causing her any harm other than shade and encroachment on her property. That’s not actionable under the Hawaii Rule. If it had been destroying her foundation or choking her sewer, the Smith v. Holt court would have declared it “noxious” and thus a nuisance.
Likewise, Smith v. Holt was all Mr. and Ms. Fancher needed to carry the day. In fact, their arborist understood: he testified that the sweetgum “tree was ‘noxious’ because of its location …” (emphasis added). The arborist and the Fanchers both understood Smith v. Holt. Why the trial court could not, and why the Virginia Supreme Court found it necessary to overrule a perfectly serviceable decision — something courts are traditionally loathe to do — we don’t know. But contrary to the hand wringing and the editorializing, no new day has dawned on Virginia encroachment law. Under Smith v. Holt, a tree causing actual or imminent sensible harm to a complaining neighbor was a “pig in a parlor.” Under Fancher v. Fagella, it still is.
Arrington v. Jenkins, Chancery 89-173, 1990 WL 751069 (Cir.Ct.Va. Feb. 20, 1990) (unreported). This decision, which relied on Smith v. Holt, a landmark Virginia case which was overruled in September 2007 by Fancher v. Fagella, appears to have concerned a suit by one urban neighbor against another because her Osage orange tree had limbs which were overhanging his yard. The Osage orange, of course, drops round fruit of about 5 inches in diameter, which are green and lumpy and inedible to humans. The fruit are known as hedge apples.
Arrington sued for an injunction, asking the Court to order Jenkins to trim the branches that were overhanging the Arrington yard, apparently because of the 5” inedible “hedge apples” the tree dropped on his lawn every fall.
Held: The trial court held that “under the circumstances of this case, the ‘mock’ or ‘osage’ orange trees are ‘noxious’” within the meaning of Smith v. Holt. Because of that fact, the trial court said, the responsibility for the trimming of the trees to avoid the fruit from falling upon Arringtons’ property must rest with Jenkins. The court issued an injunction that restrained Jenkins from allowing the limbs of the Osage orange trees to grow over and above the Arringtons’ land.
– Tom Root