This is not a substitute for legal advice.
Many of you may have neighbors with trees or bushes growing near the property line. Branches might be impacting equipment you use in fields, growing into property line fences, or dropping branches on your property after storms. The question is often asked, “Can I trim my neighbor’s tree?” The answer, at least in Delaware and Maryland, is that a neighboring property owner has the right to trim tree limbs, bushes, or other vegetation growing over the property line back to the property line. The neighboring property owner cannot trespass to do so, and may only trim from his/her property.
The Court of Appeals of Maryland has decided that neighboring property owners are limited to self-help when dealing with adjoining property owners’ trees, vines, roots, and other plants or plant debris come on their property. In Melnick v. C.S.X. Corp., Melnick bought a property which included a warehouse near a railroad right-of-way owned by the B & O Railroad. Melnick’s warehouse experienced property damage due to trees, vines, and other plant life encroaching on Melnick’s property. Keeping the plant life from encroaching required constant maintenance, but Melnick’s warehouse sustained damage nonetheless. Melnick sued the railroad seeking compensation for the damage to the warehouse.
The court found that neighboring landowners, such as Melnick, are not entitled to damages but are limited to helping themselves by cutting back the growth. With the right to self-help, a neighboring landowner can cut back to the property line. A neighboring landowner would commit trespass by entering the neighbor’s property to cut the growth back. If Melnick crossed onto the railroad right-of-way to trim back vegetation, for example, this could potentially be trespassing unless Melnick had the railroad’s blessing to be on the right-of-way.
This rule adopted in Maryland is the rule followed by a majority of states. Neighboring landowners are limited to self-help when dealing with encroaching vegetation, such as trees or vines. Delaware has also adopted the self-help view and found that neighboring landowners have a right to cut encroaching vegetation to the property line. In the Delaware case, Keller v. Oliver, the neighboring homeowner entered the neighbor’s property and cut the tree limbs at the trunk. In Keller, the issue was the amount of damages resulting to the trees from cutting branches at the trunk. The neighbor had expert opinions demonstrating that the tree had damages of $5,000. The court found that the removal of limbs either from the property line or the trunk made no difference. In this case, the court found for the neighboring landowner and did not award the tree owner any damages.
As I said earlier, this is a question that many of you frequently wonder or ask about. You may have neighbors’ vegetation growing onto your property, impacting equipment with low hanging limbs or vines, etc. Currently, the law will only let you remove the vegetation up to the property line. To remove back to trunk, you need the permission of the neighboring landowner.
Keller v. Oliver, No. CIV.A.80C-JN-10, 1982 WL 590738 (Del. May 17, 1982)
Melnick v. C.S.X Corp., 312 Md. 511 (1988).