How Far from Property Line Should Trees Be

Visitor Question: How far from someone’s property line does someone have to be in order to plant large growing trees?

Editors Reply: In most places, the answer depends on the qualities of the trees and the appetite of the neighbor planting the tree for legal liability.

However, since you sent this as a zoning question, let us assume for a moment that you live in a place where there is an actual zoning rule about this topic. If so, the question can only be answered by consulting your local zoning ordinance. Each one is unique. Most towns now are posting these ordinances online, so you can read for yourself what is required. These types of regulations might be in a separate paragraph or chapter about landscaping, or the rules might be incorporated in the regulations for each particular zoning district.

(If you are not familiar with this, each parcel of land in a town, city, village, township, or county that has a zoning ordinance is included in a "zoning district," which may or may not consist of an actual district of adjoining lots. The "district" could be scattered all over town. But each "district" will have a description of permitted land uses within it, as well as other regulations that again are particular to each jurisdiction.)

If you cannot find the zoning ordinance online, a call to your city hall will inform you about this specific provision.

Since you mention large trees, you might be in a fairly strict jurisdiction where tree planting is required as a substitution for the trees that are cut down as a home is being built. If so, that regulation also may deal with proximity to property lines and even required spacing between trees.

In most places, however, this distance is not addressed in the zoning ordinance or some other development regulation. Instead, it is more important for the neighbor who is doing the planting to consider the legal ramifications of where the tree is planted.

Neighbors who do not own the tree have the right to cut back the tree to the extent that limbs hang over the neighbor's yard. This cutting back must not be so severe as to kill or permanently damage the tree, but still, if I were planting a nice tree, especially a large and therefore expensive tree, I would not want to have a neighbor immediately ruining its shape by cutting it back.

Now let's shift gears and assume that maybe you are the one who wants to plant the large tree near a property line. Maybe you want privacy, or maybe that's just the best place on your property for immediate shade or screening. From your standpoint, you would want to be aware that a neighbor can trim the branches back to the property line. The neighbor also may be able to hold you legally responsible for damage that tree roots cause to their property.

One factor to consider is whether the large trees will in fact grow much larger. If so, you need to do more thinking about whether you will plant such a tree, or tolerate your neighbor planting such a tree without protest if you are on the other side of the situation. If the trees are basically fully grown when planted, it will be easier for both parties to visualize the complications that may arise.

Note that although the permission for property owners to trim back overhanging branches is nearly universal in our experience, it is always possible that your jurisdiction is an exception. You can probably ask your city for informal advice on this topic as well; friendlier city employees will tell you what they know. If you need to be completely certain, you will have to consult an attorney or the local bar association.

In sum, find out if you are in a minority of locations that actually govern this distance from the property line by municipal law. If not, consider the potential for conflict with neighbors and even for lawsuits if there is a problem.

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