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Before you embark on your next landscaping maintenance project, be sure the trees you are trimming are situated on your own property. Steve Taitz and Paula Wetstein litigated a suit over trees on our client’s property that a neighbor’s contractor chopped down.

In New York, property owners are protected by a statute known as Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law section 861 which imposes liability for damages for cutting, trimming or destroying trees located on another’s property without the owner’s consent, even if it was done unintentionally. And the penalties can be quite hefty, since the statute provides for treble damages for the value of the trees removed, plus the costs of restoration of the property. Hiring a contractor to do the work will not insulate you from liability either, as you can be responsible for your contractor’s actions if you directed him to do the work.

Property owners are often confronted with a dilemma when a hedge or tree planted years ago has become overgrown and it is situated on or near the common property line with a neighbor. Even if you were the one who initially planted these trees, you must proceed with caution. If the trees are located on the boundary line between the properties, the law deems you and your neighbor to be common owners of the trees and neither of you may remove them without the other’s permission.

You may, however, trim those leaves and branches that hang over onto your property, but must do so carefully, so as not to destroy the entire tree. If your in-artful pruning causes the tree to die, you are subject to liability under section 861.

If there is any doubt that the trees you would like pruned or cut down are located wholly within the boundaries of your own property, you should consult with a licensed surveyor.

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