“Doug, these trees are wonderful!” exclaimed a client last fall as we drove along Miller Heights Road in Oakton, VA looking for a home to buy.
For those of you from San Diego or Colorado, we have very large Oaks (hence “Oakton”), Maples, Sycamores, and Sweetgums that can give the impression we have forests amongst our manicured suburban landscaping. Many of these trees have grown unchecked for 50 years as Northern Virginia transformed from farmlands to residential subdivisions. And the fall season can be a wonderful site with the trees blazing yellow, red, and orange from late September into November.
Arborists will agree that your trees grow and need maintenance
This brings up the situation of what happens when you need to cut back or trim your neighbor’s trees overhanging your yard? It is okay to do this as long as you don’t kill the tree and know that any work is at your expense. Just to keep on good terms, it is best to tell your neighbor that your tree guys are going to prune it back. Never assume that your neighbor knows a tree is overgrown or is a nuisance since they are only seeing it from their yard, and will probably agree that the tree needs attention when they see it from your yard.
Virginia home owners should know that they can still trim back those branches or cut those nasty roots, but if your neighbor’s tree has started to cause more serious structural problems to your house, like aggressive roots that have broken through your foundation or water pipes, then you can take them to court. Yes, lawyers!
Virginia rules for tree trimming
The Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling in Fancher v. Fagella (9/2007) dealt with a big old Sweetgum tree in a new townhouse development in Fairfax County, VA. These trees grow big, look fantastic, provide shade, are our “breathing buddies”, but also need lots of water. To find that water, they send sturdy roots everywhere. In this specific case, this nice old Sweetgum tree was a holdover from the old farm and was now stuck in between some townhouses.
As it turned out, that old tree continued to grow and impacted the neighbor’s house in search of water. One neighbor asked the other to remove the tree (which probably would have cost $3,000 to $5,000) because of the structural damage being caused by the roots. Well, things didn’t work out as planned and it wound up in the Virginia Supreme Court… and eventually the tree was cut down.
A perfect Virginia shade tree… just in the wrong place
Let me be upfront that I am not a lawyer, but I am a licensed Virginia real estate agent and a Vienna home owner who has large Oak trees on my own property. There really isn’t any change here when dealing with the above ground issues of pruning a tree or trimming your neighbor’s tree that crosses your property line. The only emphasis is that you have the ability to go to court if your neighbor’s tree is causing damage to your house such as root damage to your foundation.
If you live in Reston, VA where the Reston Association has guidelines for tree removal, you should know that they require Association approval before work can be performed.
When I was President of the Vienna Commons Association, I would get an occasional phone call from a neighbor complaining about another neighbor’s tree that hung over their yard, was hitting the roof, or dropping fruit in their yard. Back then I would respond that they had the right (in Virginia) to cut back the encroaching portion of their neighbor’s tree that overhangs the property line.
And that policy is still true today, but remember to be a good neighbor and tell your neighbor before the cutting begins. Leave a comment to share your experience trimming a neighbor’s tree in Virginia.
If you are interested in tree issues and want to learn more about the Massachusetts Rule, the Hawaii Rule, the Virginia Rule, Smith v. Holt or Fancher v. Fagella, or you can read more.