Case of the Day – Tuesday, January 3, 2023


Yeah, we talk about the Massachusetts Rule all the time, but really, how relevant is it to our modern, digitized, frenetic world?

Ask Pete Kirk and Bryan Johnson. These unhappy landowners did not think much of an affordable housing development going in next to their parcels. Their stated complaint was that drainage would be altered and eight Norway maples on or near the boundary lines might be harmed.

I have no reason to suspect that Pete and Bryan objected to the nature of the development, or what all of those people needing “affordable housing” might do to their property value. But they were mightily unhappy that regrading or excavation could to their trees, and they sought to get the zoning board’s approval withdrawn.

Sorry, the court said to Pete and Bryan. This being Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Rule reigns supreme. The developer had the right to do with his property as he wished, even if it cut or affected tree roots that had encroached on his land. Strangely, the Court seems to have engrafted a specific intent requirement on the developer. He could cut roots or change the grade (which would bury the roots too deep in the soil), even if he knew it would kill the trees. The only limitation is that he could not do so with the intent to kill the trees.

Come again? I have read Michalson v. Nutting repeatedly without being able to find scienter anywhere in the ruling. Is the Court saying that what you do as a landowner to exercise your self-help rights under the Massachusetts Rule is somehow regulated by the purity of your motives? Outside of the obvious difficulty in proving what the landowner intended to accomplish in any given act on his or her property, what does motive have to do with the reasonableness of an act?

Forgive me for thinking of the Tin Man in a yoga class.

Kirk v. Li, 2019 Mass. LCR LEXIS 2 (Mass. Land Ct., Jan. 7, 2019).  Developer 269 North Ave, LLC got a comprehensive permit from the Weston Zoning Board of Appeals (Board) for a 16-unit housing project on a one-and-a-half-acre parcel. The property, severely sloped in the rear, presented tough challenges to satisfying the requirement that the project not result in an increase in stormwater runoff, because all of the stormwater from 16 acres surrounding the site accumulates on the property. Because of the particularly porous soils on the property, all of this stormwater recharged into the ground, with none of it running off. Construction of the project would increase the impermeable surfaces on the property, such as buildings and parking lots, which meant a decrease in open land available to recharge stormwater.

To satisfy stormwater regulations, the developer designed a system to collect and discharge all stormwater into the ground. The Board was satisfied and issued the comprehensive permit.

Peter Kirk and Bryan Johnson owned land that abutted the developer’s property on the south and north respectively. They complained to the Board that the developer’s stormwater system would not handle the stormwater flow onto its property, resulting in flooding on their land. Additionally, Pete and Bryan argued that the housing development would harm or even kill trees that straddle the boundary or are on their properties. When the Board disagreed, they sued.

Held: The Court held that Board did not act unreasonably or arbitrarily or capriciously in accepting the developer’s stormwater management plan or its measures for protecting the trees.

This review focused only on Pete and Bryan’s complaints about their trees. Pete identified three trees on his property or on the common boundary line with the developer’s property, and Bryan cited five trees on his land or on the common boundary line they asserted would be adversely affected by the project. Their experts testified that the root systems of the eight trees, all Norway maples, would be harmed by the roots being cut or by adding more than one to three inches of soil above the existing surface grade. The cutting and grading would all take place on the developer’s property, but would – according to Pete and Bryan – harm or even kill the trees.

The Court admitted there was “no bright line delineating what unilateral actions regarding a shared tree are or are not permitted.” To be sure, a property owner cannot act to intentionally destroy a shared tree without the consent of the others who share an ownership interest therein. Yet, the growth of roots and branches into a neighbor’s land, the Court said, “no matter how essential to a tree’s survival, cannot vest in the tree’s owner some indomitable nonpossessory interest in the space the tree occupies.”

Here, the developer did not want to remove the trees. As a matter of law, the Court ruled, the developer would be entirely within his rights to pursue the project even if it has the effect of harming some of the trees’ roots. With respect to trees situated entirely on Pete’s or Bryan’s property, the Massachusetts Rule provides that the developer has an unfettered right to cut the roots and branches of such trees back to the property line. With respect to the trees situated on shared property lines, the Court held, the developer similarly has the right to cut roots and branches situated on the developer’s property. The only limitation is that the developer may not do so with the intent of killing those trees.

The Court found that the expert testimony made it clear that some level of activity within the area immediately surrounding the trunks of the trees could have the effect of killing them. “However,” the Court noted, “the testimony does not speak to where the roots of the… trees are actually located or what harms to the trees are certain or even reasonably certain… Here, where the applicable law makes it doubtful that [Pete and Bryan] have a claim to demand any protections for [their] trees, the level of speculation in the resulting harms renders these risks too remote to bear on whether the Board’s Decision was improper.

– Tom Root


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