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Legal Issues Related to Your Property’s Trees
Sand Vegetation
By David Grokenberger, Esq.
outhern California is home to a wide variety of
trees and vegetation, which provide aesthetic, environmental and economic benefits. Trees and vegetation can also cause problems, especially when not maintained properly, and if they infringe on the property rights of others. California law provides a series of laws regarding trees and vegetation in an attempt
to balance these interests, and important for landlords and property owners to know.
The ownership of a tree depends on the location of the trunk. If a tree trunk is located entirely on a certain property, then the owner of that property owns the tree, and the tree’s roots and branches [Booska v. Patel (1994) 24 Cal.App.4th 1786, 1791]. Furthermore, the owner of a tree is liable for any damage caused by branches or portions of the tree falling on another’s property [Bonde v. Bishop (1952) 112 Cal. App. 2d 1, 6]. If the tree overhangs or extends onto a neighboring property, the owner of the neighboring property may trim back the branches and/or roots to the property line without court order or permission so long as he or she is reasonable in doing so [Rony v. Costa (2012) 210 Cal.App.4th 746, 753–756].
From a practical standpoint, the decision to cut back another property owner’s trees or vegetation should not be taken lightly. Consultation from a gardener or arborist regarding the scope of cutting and the impact on the vegetation is recommended to avoid a situation where overaggressive cutting damages a neighbor’s vegetation or trees. Often times, trees, especially mature trees, are more fragile and expensive than one may realize.
When the tree trunk is situated across multiple properties, the tree is shared by owners of those properties. Civil Code section 834 provides: ‘Trees whose trunks stand partly on the land of two or more coterminous owners, belong to them in common.’ As such, neither owner ‘is at liberty to cut the tree without the consent of the other, nor to cutaway the part which extends into his land, if he thereby injures the common property in the tree.’” [Kallis v. Sones (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 1274, 1278]. These so-called “line trees” are the joint property
of both property owners, and accordingly, the costs of maintenance should be split, ideally with the owners agreeing to a maintenance schedule and cost-sharing arrangement.
When damage to trees occurs, California law provides for double and treble damages [See Civ. Code, § 3346(a) and Code Civ. Proc., § 733]. The general rule in California is that if a person wrongfully and maliciously enters onto the land of another and cuts or removes trees, the plaintiff is entitled to treble damages. Malicious intent is generally proven where the defendant acts with indifference or disregard to the rights of others [Caldwell v. Walker (1963) 211 Cal.App.2d 758, 764]. Even if the wrongful entry is casual or involuntary, the trespasser is still liable for double damages [Civ. Code, § 3346(a)]. Furthermore, liability for wrongful trimming cannot be foisted onto a tree trimming company [See Civ. Code, §§ 2338-2339, (principal responsible for acts of agent, and ratifies such acts through payment to agent)[.
The damages award for trespassing can be based on diminution in value to the subject property, but also based on the cost to replace the actual tree [Heninger v. Dunn (1980) 101 Cal.App.3d 858, 862]. Generally, the replacement cost valuation of damages is only available where there is a personal reason for restoring the tree and there is reason to believe the plaintiff will take such action (Id. at p. 863). The double and treble damages for wrongful trimming of trees, combined with the surprisingly high value that many trees carry, should give pause to anyone hoping to casually trim back branches. It is important to be aware of the location and ownership of the tree, and to consult with gardeners and arborists how best to manage it.
As always, it is important to seek independent legal counsel as to your specific objectives and circumstances.
The author, David Grokenberger, Esq., is Of Counsel at the law firm of Rogers, Sheffield & Campbell in Santa Barbara, California, and he has been a frequent lecturer and author in the areas of Real Property Law and Landlord-Tenant re- lations. You can reach Mr. Grokenberger at (805) 963-9721 or via email at

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