From the Treetops

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Every person, from homeowner to lawyer, represents a unique perspective. As a board member, each perspective demands unique attention and can push you in different directions. In this series, we will examine some common issues facing HOAs, identify a variety of important perspectives, and use information from industry experts to offer a comprehensive view.

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity... and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” - William Blake

“Seriously, did that squirrel just jump on my roof again from my neighbor's tree that needs to be pruned? I'll be pulling out my shears tomrw" - Somebody on Twitter

What is a tree to you? To your neighbors? Trees can represent beauty and shade, increased property values, maintenance expense, nuisance, and liability. Where you see beauty, your neighbor may see only a mess in the yard, a raised sidewalk, or a damaged roof. How do you respond to the challenge to see problems through all eyes: to recognize different needs, and to respond objectively?

California has (mercifully) dodged the polar vortex engulfing the East Coast, but the winter season can still cause difficult times for associations with large trees. While trees provide aesthetic value to a landscape, they can also cause disputes between neighbors, and demand a great deal of planning, maintenance, and care. Issues of legality and liability seem to arise most often during the winter – a time when storms and natural disasters can cause trees to fall over and injure residents or destroy property. Here we summarize the most common tree-related issues faced by HOA boards: tree planning, maintenance and liability.

Treescape Planning

Elizabeth Lanham, Certified Arborist for Serpico Landscaping, believes that deliberate and organized tree planning is the key to producing an attractive and safe landscape. Indeed, planting trees in the wrong place can lead to unanticipated consequences. A tree planted near concrete, for example, can create safety hazards and maintenance issues if its roots displace the sidewalk or street. The key to tree planning is to research and understand different types of trees before embarking on landscape renovation. In her article, “Happy Trees, Happy Homeowners,” Lanham has outlined a few things to consider when planning your treescape:

  1. What is the potential size of the tree and its roots once it is full grown?
  2. Is the tree fruit-bearing? If so, will it be planted in an area that will not create a nuisance when fruit drops?
  3. Are trees planted a safe distance from power lines and underground utilities?
  4. Are the trees native and/or appropriate for the type of climate in which you live?
  5. It may be helpful to hire an ISA-Certified Arborist to help select the right trees and inspect the trees before installation to ensure that you are planting good quality nursery stock.


Trees provide beauty and shade during the summer, but can become a liability when natural disasters strike. Having a landscape maintenance strategy is especially important for the winter season, given the possibility of stormy weather and safety issues. Robert Booty, Principal Consultant for Arborist OnSite, answers frequently asked questions regarding tree failure and discusses maintenance tips in his article, “Can You Sleep on a Stormy Night?

Some of his suggestions include:

  1. Have trees inspected by a qualified and knowledgeable professional, such as an ISA-Certified Arborist.
  2. Ensure that all trees are properly pruned and/or thinned.
  3. Check for cavities and fungal growth on tree trunks, which may indicate decay.

Legal Issues

In order to avoid liability and damage, HOA attorney Tom Fier advises that boards become familiar with local and state laws regarding tree planting. Further, Fier recommends that the board assigns responsibility for maintenance of trees and landscaping. As it relates to trees, the California Civil Code Section 3346 outlines ownership and damages for injury, and describes what factors constitute a nuisance. In his article "Trees," Fier outlines the most common legal issues among HOAs regarding trees: removal, view and/or privacy issues, overplanting, and cost as it relates to maintenance and planning. As a means of preventing further liability, Fier recommends hiring a tree expert prior to making any changes to pre-existing landscaping.

Whether you are dealing with current tree problems or just planning ahead, try to keep each of the perspectives above in mind. These tips above can enhance property values, and help your HOA reduce the risk of tree-related injuries and potential lawsuits.  

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I wish some of these laws would come to Chicago.  My neighbor has a bunch of trees but she does not care for them at all.  The trees grow over into my property, the leaves fall everywhere and so doesn't give a rats ass about her property - much less mine.  They are growing into the power lines and I know that it doesn't matter to her.  We've already butt heads about things in the past, I wish we could reach some type of management plan but she just doesn't care.  I've called a tree removal company in Elgin to give us estimates on the cost to remove the tree, but I don't see why it should be my resoponsibility.

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