Tree Law in the United States: Background information when reading A Good Neighborhood

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A Good Neighborhood

by Therese Anne Fowler

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler X
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2020, 320 pages
    Mar 2021, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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About this Book

Tree Law in the United States

This article relates to A Good Neighborhood

Print Review

Neighborhood with Trees from Above In Therese Anne Fowler's A Good Neighborhood, a lawsuit over a tree precipitates a series of tragic events. It is not uncommon for a tree to be the basis of a dispute between neighbors. Fallen trees or branches often affect neighbors, but remain the responsibility of the person whose property contains the tree's trunk. If the trunk is on the line between two properties, though, it is considered a "boundary tree" and both parties share responsibility for it.

Tree law, which in the U.S. is set at the state or local level, addresses questions such as how many trees someone can plant, what regulations there are on the cutting down of trees, whether a tree is actually on government-owned land and so on. Other issues that might be brought to court are tree roots encroaching on someone else's land, a fallen branch causing personal injury or damage to property such as a car, cutting down someone else's tree without permission or the growth of a tree leading to the loss of a desirable view.

Although U.S. tree laws vary from state to state and often result from "case law" (the precedents set by previous legal suits), many of the basics were adopted wholesale from English common law. This includes the understanding that someone can cut any branches overhanging from a neighbor's tree up to their own boundary line—though more recent cases have stipulated that care should be taken not to damage the tree. If harm is caused to a neighbor's tree, even inadvertently, three times its replacement value may be required in compensation.

At the same time, tree owners are responsible for ensuring that their own trees are safe. If a well-maintained tree's branch falls, it is considered an act of God. However, if a potentially dangerous tree has not been dealt with appropriately, the landowner can be prosecuted if their tree falls and causes injury or damage. This is especially important in urban areas. If a neighbor reports a dangerous tree, the landowner can be forced to remove it. Sometimes utility companies will undertake removal if a tree looks likely to fall on their equipment.

What makes tree law especially complicated in the U.S. is that it can fall into various sections of a state code. For example, California's tree laws come under six different sections of the civil code. In addition, a charge of trespassing to inflict damage on a neighbor's tree could come under three sections of California's penal code.

Barri Bonapart, a California tree lawyer interviewed by online magazine Atlas Obscura, astutely noted that "It's never about the trees. The trees often serve as lightning rods for other issues that are the psychological underpinning of a dispute that people might have with each other." That is certainly true in A Good Neighborhood, where the oak tree in question is a symbol of respect for other people's differences and for the environment as much as it is a literal object being fought over by neighbors.

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Rebecca Foster

This "beyond the book article" relates to A Good Neighborhood. It originally ran in February 2020 and has been updated for the March 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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