How Should Neighbors Resolve Property Disputes?

NeighborsA question that lawyers in general practice hear too often is: “My neighbor’s tree branch is hanging over my property. Can I cut it from the tree?” The legal answer might be “yes,” but the answer a lawyer will usually give is, “Can’t you work this out with your neighbor?”

Tree branches might cause part of a property owner’s lot to be shaded when the owner would prefer those areas to receive full sunlight. The law in most states allows the property owner to trim those branches up to the lot line, but doesn’t allow the property owner to cut a branch beyond the property boundary.

In addition, the law usually doesn’t allow a property owner to kill or cause significant damage to a neighbor’s tree. If a tree is growing on a neighbor’s lot but most of its large branches extend into your lot, cutting those branches might kill the tree. If that happens, you might be held responsible for replacing the tree.

If part of a tree trunk encroaches on your property, the tree belongs to both you and your neighbor. Joint ownership creates joint responsibility for making decisions about the tree. Sawing off the part of the trunk that extends into your lot might be satisfying, but it will probably kill a tree that isn’t entirely yours. The same is true if roots are growing into your lot. Digging up the root might cause the tree to die. That might make you responsible for the tree’s replacement value.

By the same token, if an encroaching root threatens to harm the foundation of your house, your neighbor has an obligation to prevent the tree from damaging your property. Working together to solve the problem is the most neighborly approach, but that doesn’t always happen.

Disagreeable Neighbors

Neighbors have all kinds of disputes. They disagree about property boundaries (a disagreement that can sometimes be resolved only with an expensive survey). They disagree about fences. They disagree whether a dog barks too often. They disagree whether backyard parties are too noisy.

As Rodney King famously said, “Can’t we all just get along?” Unfortunately, many neighbors can’t.

The dispute between Sen. Rand Paul and his neighbor, retired anesthesiologist Rene Boucher, exemplifies the truth that even in the best neighborhoods, neighbors have difficulty resolving their disputes peacefully. The two men own adjacent properties in an idyllic gated community. Boucher was arrested for assaulting the libertarian senator, leaving him with six broken ribs.

While Boucher was charged with a misdemeanor in state court, federal prosecutors decided to charge him with a federal crime because he assaulted a senator. They did so despite acknowledging the lack of any evidence that Paul’s job or political views had anything to do with the assault. Boucher has entered into a plea agreement and will be sentenced in March.

News reports suggest that Boucher attacked Paul just as Paul hopped down from his riding lawnmower. Neither man is large, but Boucher apparently tackled Paul after running downhill. His momentum probably accounts for the physical damage that Paul suffered.

The reason for Boucher’s violence is unclear. Boucher’s attorney added support to the theory by characterizing his client’s actions as having been motivated by a landscaping dispute. Internet conspiracy theorists quickly branded Boucher as a radical socialist who attacked Paul because of the senator’s political views. Others theorize that Boucher, who is steadfastly opposed to marijuana use, dislikes Rand because the senator supports the federal legalization of marijuana. As is usual with internet theories, there appears to be no evidence to support either of polar opposite claims.

Did Yard Care Lead to Violence?

With their “it’s my right to do whatever I want with my property” attitude, libertarians do not necessarily make the best neighbors. Some reports suggest that Paul has for years blown into Boucher’s yard while riding his lawnmower, a problem that could easily be resolved by riding the lawnmower in the opposite direction.

Neighbors describe Boucher as being obsessive about his yard (like most people in the neighborhood, he pays a landscaping service to maintain his property), and his anger may have been building over the years because Paul’s mowing habits impaired the neatly manicured look of Boucher's lawn. However, federal prosecutors told the court that Boucher “had enough” when Paul stacked brush into a pile on his own lawn, but near Boucher’s property.

A neighbor says that Boucher repeatedly asked Paul to reverse the direction of his mowing and that Rand refused. Boucher apparently raised the issue with the Homeowner’s Association, but even if the Association was empowered to act, the notion that it would enforce its 13 pages of rules against a United States Senator is a bit fanciful.

Another neighbor told the press that Boucher was upset because trees on Rand’s property block his view of the lake. Boucher has been trying to sell his home for years, and he may have viewed Rand’s unwillingness to remove the trees as affecting his property value.

Paul retweeted some comments about Boucher’s disapproval of Donald Trump, but he has otherwise refused to speculate about Boucher’s motivation. He denied speaking to Boucher at all during the last ten years, but other neighbors say that denial isn’t true.

Resolving Property Disputes

Community residents suggest that both Paul and Boucher have disagreeable personalities. Paul seems to believe that what’s his is his, and if his neighbors don’t like how he manages his own property, that’s too bad. That attitude seems inconsistent with his voluntary decision to enter into a contract to respect the rules that his Homeowner Association imposes on property owners — rules that, according to neighbors, Paul has consistently violated. Freedom of contract is fundamental to the libertarian philosophy that Paul espouses, but some libertarians paradoxically conclude that they are not bound by their own agreements if they see those agreements as eroding liberty.

On the other hand, Boucher’s obsessive approach to yard care has reportedly resulted in other disputes with property owners. A more relaxed attitude about community standards — a recognition that the world doesn’t end if every lawn is not as immaculate as your own — can avoid disputes before they start.

Trying to get along with your neighbors is the best way to keep peace in a neighborhood. If you want to cut a tree branch, ask your neighbor first. The neighbor will probably approve and will appreciate your courtesy in asking.

If a neighbor complains that your grass blows into the neighbor’s lawn when you mow, the neighbor has a legitimate complaint. It won’t kill you to mow in the opposite direction or to install a grass catcher on your mower.

Whenever neighbors have a dispute, they should resolve it nonviolently, even if they don’t get along. Courts are available to resolve property disputes when necessary, although judges don’t like to waste their time on tree disputes that they justly view as petty. A better approach is to engage in community mediation, in which a mediator acts as a go-between to help neighbors negotiate a peaceful resolution to their disagreement.

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