It’s the time of year when farmers are cleaning up fence rows and boundary lines to prepare fields for planting season. Tree law questions pop up a lot during this time. Here are answers to the most commonly asked questions we receive about trees along boundary lines in Ohio’s rural areas. Note that there can be different laws addressing trees within a city or village.
Who owns a tree that’s on the property line?
When a tree is on the boundary line between two properties, both neighbors have ownership interests in the tree. However, if only the branches or roots of a tree extend past the property line and into a neighbor’s property, the branches and roots do not give that neighbor an ownership interest in the tree.
Can I cut down a tree on the boundary line?
No, not if your neighbor doesn’t agree to the removal. Because both you and your neighbor jointly own the tree, you must both agree to cutting down the tree. If you remove the tree without the neighbor’s approval, you could be liable to the neighbor or the neighbor’s share of the value of the tree, or for three times the value of the tree if you behaved “recklessly,” explained further on.
Can I trim the branches of the neighbor’s tree that hang over my property?
Yes, even if the tree isn’t on the boundary line and you don’t have an ownership interest in it, you still have the legal right to trim branches that hang over your property. However, you must take “reasonable care” in trimming the branches. Failing to act with reasonable care and causing harm such as disease or death of the tree could result in liability.
How does the law determine liability for harming or cutting down a tree?
Ohio Revised Code 901.51 addresses injury to vines, bushes, trees, or crops on land of another, referred to as the “reckless destruction of vegetation law." The law states that a person shall not “recklessly cut down, destroy, girdle, or otherwise injure a vine, bush, shrub, sapling, tree, or crop standing or growing on the land of another or upon public land.” The word “recklessly” means the action occurred with complete disregard to the rights of the landowner. Violations of the reckless destruction law can result in criminal misdemeanor charges or a civil negligence lawsuit by the tree owner. The law provides potential punitive “treble damages” that make the violator liable for three times the value of the damaged tree, crop, or vegetation.
If my neighbor’s tree falls onto my property, is the neighbor liable for the damage?
Possibly, if the neighbor had knowledge that the tree was diseased, weak, or “patently dangerous.” If the tree was not in a weakened or damaged condition or the neighbor had no knowledge of its condition, the law would not likely create liability for the damage. You'd have to take action against the neighbor to establish liability, however. If there is harm to a structure, your insurance provider might be involved and take the lead on establishing responsibility under the neighbor's insurance coverage. Even so, there is no law that creates an affirmative duty for the neighbor to clean up the tree. Landowners are expected to use the remedy of “self-help,” i.e., to clean up natural and ordinary tree debris on their property, even if from a neighbor’s tree. Likewise, the neighbor is expected to clean up debris from your trees that fall onto the neighbor’s property.
Can I keep the timber or firewood from the neighbor’s tree or a boundary tree that fell on my property?
Ohio law doesn’t address this issue. The “self-help” remedy for tree debris that falls on the property suggests that you are responsible for removing the debris, which could logically allow you to do as you wish with the debris. But if the tree is valuable or was a jointly owned boundary tree—might the neighbor have rights to the tree or its value? Because Ohio law doesn’t clearly answer this question, it’s wise to talk with the neighbor and provide a reasonable amount of time for the neighbor to claim ownership and remove their share of the tree. Document the notice given to the neighbor as well as the timber or firewood resulting from the tree in case the neighbor fails to respond until after tree removal and claims an ownership interest at that time.
Written by: Chris Hogan, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
Farmers are gearing up for spring and preparing to plant crops and graze livestock. Part of spring-cleaning may involve clearing partition fence rows at the edge of fields and trimming back overhanging branches above the fence. Overgrown tree branches can affect crops and pose a hazard to agricultural equipment. Removing trees that obstruct the fence row, noxious weeds tangled in the fence, and other unwanted vegetation is a serious matter for Ohio farmers. Ohio law provides for ways to clear a partition fence shared between two neighboring properties. Ohio law also cautions against damaging trees when trimming overhanging branches.
Clearing the fence row
This section only applies to the removal of vegetation in the fence row. Clearing overhanging trees above the fence is a separate matter discussed further below.
A partition fence is a fence that follows the division line between adjoining properties of two owners. The term “fence row” refers to the strip of land that is on either side of the fence. In order to keep a fence in good condition, owners should occasionally clear the fence row of obstructions caused by vegetation. Clearing a fence row keeps noxious weeds, brush, briers, and other vegetation from spreading onto a neighbor’s property. Ohio law provides several methods for a landowner to clear the fence row legally.
The easiest way to clear the fence row is to ask a neighbor to clear his or her side of the partition fence. Ohio law creates a duty for owners on either side of a partition fence to clear brush, briers, thistles and other noxious weeds in a strip four feet wide along the line of the fence, after a landowner gives notice to a neighbor asking them to do so. It is best to be polite, patient, and clear when speaking with a neighbor about when you would each like to clear the fence row. A landowner and a neighboring owner should try to establish a timeline to clear each side of the fence row.
What if a landowner asks a neighbor to clear the fence row on their side of a partition fence and they refuse? Once a landowner asks a neighbor to clear a fence row, that neighbor has ten days to do so. If a neighbor does not clear it within ten days, the landowner can ask the local board of township trustees to arrange for the fence row to be cleared.
After a landowner notifies the trustees that a neighbor refused to clear the fence row within ten days, the township trustees must view the property to determine if there is just cause for the complaint. Next, if there is a cause for the complaint, the trustees will enter into a contract with a third party to clear the fence row and certify the associated costs to the county auditor. The county auditor will bill the neighboring landowner for the work to clear the fence row. The auditor will assess these costs against the neighboring landowner by adding these costs to his or her property tax bill.
Trimming back overhanging branches
Landowners have the right to trim vertically and remove overhanging obstructions from above their side of the fence. Ohio courts recognize this privilege to remove obstructions, but not without limitations. Ohio courts do not permit landowners to cause harm to the other side of the property line. A landowner should be careful not to damage the neighbor’s trees or trespass on to the neighbor’s property when trimming overhanging branches. Landowners may be liable to a neighbor if they recklessly damage a neighbor’s tree when removing overhanging branches.
Landowners should review their rights and responsibilities to maintain fences prior to clearing the fence row this spring. For more information on line fence law, visit the Ag Law Library here.