THE TROUBLE WITH TREES
By Gary Redenbacher, Esq.
A huge attraction of living in Scotts Valley and the San Lorenzo Valley are our magnificent trees. But just as we love our trees, they can also create tremendous legal problems. A very agitated client met me several years ago and blurted out, “Gary, they’re all gone!” For years, his uphill neighbor had been trying to get my client to cut down his small grove of redwoods because the neighbor wanted a view. It didn’t matter that the redwoods had been there for at least a hundred years before he was born. He was determined to get his view. Under the premise that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, the neighbor turned the trees into kindling while my client was away.
The law allows a judge to assess penalties of three times the value of each tree that one cuts down on a neighbor’s property (it can also be a criminal misdemeanor). Since each mature redwood tree is worth many thousands of dollars, the neighbor was looking at a hit of tens of thousands of dollars; perhaps in excess of $100,000. It didn’t go to court, but the neighbor’s fit of pique still ended up costing him many thousands of dollars as he paid for large, expensive box trees to replace my client’s lost trees.
In a separate instance of yet another friendly neighbor, I got a call that every branch that hung over into my client’s neighbor’s yard had been cut off. The tree was now the arboreal equivalent of half dome. The neighbor had been upset for some time that my client’s tree dropped leaves and seeds onto his lawn. It surprises people that they have the right to not only cut off any limb that encroaches onto their property, but also the roots. If, however, the pruning causes the tree to become dangerous or die, you could find yourself in court for being too aggressive with your chainsaw. Although one has the right to trim overhanging branches or invasive roots, the better idea is to talk with your neighbor, explain that the tree has become a nuisance and then hire a professional to trim the tree. In my client’s case, no roots were cut and the limbs cut off didn’t affect the health of the tree so there was little he could do. As far as I know, the tree remains a lopsided curiosity.
It may also surprise people that you can’t plant a row of trees if doing so, once they exceed 10 feet, would destroy your neighbor’s view or otherwise create a nuisance. Such a planting is considered a spite fence and, yes, people have spent tens of thousands of dollars to go to court to get the trees trimmed down to 10 feet.
The government also gets involved with trees. Scotts Valley has an extensive tree protection code. For the most part, all trees on slopes greater than 20% in residential areas with a circumference greater than 25 inches (at chest height), all oak trees more than 25 inches in circumference, all multi-trunk oaks with a single trunk exceeding 12 inches in circumference, and nearly all other trees with a circumference greater than 40 inches require a permit before removal. Nor can anything be done to a protected tree that might damage it. The code is extensive, though, with both exceptions and further restrictions so you should consult it before doing anything to a tree in Scotts Valley.The County Code governs the San Lorenzo Valley. The key parts of the County Code that affect San Lorenzo Valley trees are the timber harvesting and “sensitive habitats” codes. Again, the codes are extensive, but the bottom line for the latter is that you cannot destroy any riparian (water loving) trees without a permit. Willows, alders and cottonwoods are the more common trees found in riparian habitats. There are extensive restrictions on timber harvesting so any such plan should be reviewed by an expert. A key exception to the need for a permit, however, is any tree within 30 feet of your home. This assumes, however, that the tree to be removed is not also in a sensitive habitat.
You may also live in a private development that has its own rules (called Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions – CC&R’s) regarding trees. These restrictions frequently include view easements and solar access easements. Before doing any tree work, you should read your CC&R’s or the local homeowner association may come knocking on your door.
Although there are other laws affecting trees, as well as exceptions and variations to the laws mentioned, the situations above are the ones I encounter most frequently. Yes, we love our trees here in the valley, but sometimes someone else hates them.
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