As summer winds down, the air cools, and the leaves begin to turn in that most wonderful New England phenomena. Thoughts turn to apple picking, hayrides, and that ugly tree in the back yard that has been bothering you all summer. Your first instinct may be to fire up the chainsaw and start beautifying your yard before winter hits but before start revving that engine consider who owns that boundary tree.
In Connecticut it is illegal to remove a tree on another person’s property and any person found liable for doing so can be charged up to three times the value of the tree as timber or the amount that removal of the tree diminishes the value of the land it was removed from. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-560.
But what about when a tree is spread across two or more properties? When a tree straddles a property line the law considers the tree to belong to both properties to the extent it is situated on or over said property. This is why property owners are allowed to trim boundary trees back to the property line. However, when cutting a tree to the property line would kill it you could be liable for damages if you do so. You would be liable to the extent that you destroyed the property of your neighbor.
How much is it worth to you?
At this point you may be thinking, I don’t care if I have to pay for it that tree is hideous but it is important to remember that while the value of the tree on his property may be minimal the treble damages provided by Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-560 could be substantial. There is also the issue of how Connecticut courts measure damages. Should the tree owner be compensated for the value of the tree as timber or does the tree have aesthetic value to the property?
Timber or Ornamental?
The question does not arise often but Connecticut courts have used both measures of damages (timber and ornamental) in tree-cutting cases. In Hoyt v. Southern New England Telephone Co. the Supreme Court found that the value of trees removed without permission from the plaintiff’s land could be measured in terms of both their timber and their aesthetic value. 60 Conn. 385, 390, 22 A. 957 (1891). The Hoyt court reasoned that that even though the defendant only removed the top of a particular elm tree and that this removal had no impact on the timber value of the tree that nevertheless it destroyed the tree’s value for shade and ornament. Id.
It then explained that while the value of the tree as timber was an acceptable measure of damages if the removed tree had some special relationship or benefit to the property its removal may cause diminution in value to the property beyond the mere timber value. This usually arises in the case of shade or ornamental trees that make the property more desirable or screen the property from view of neighbors or roads.
For further reading on the topic check out Caciopoli v. Lebowitz, 309 Conn. 62, 72–74, 68 A.3d 1150 (2013) and Eldridge v. Gorman, 77 Conn. 699, 700, 60 A. 643 (1905).