Stop! Don’t Remove that Tree

Tree related issues and disputes are common in Washington State. Washingtonians have a desire to preserve their trees as much as possible, yet they also want to take advantage of the stunning views that the Pacific Northwest has to offer. As such, property owners are often left with a mental tug-of-war and confusion over tree rights, view rights, and all other tree-related issues. Before you or your Association move forward with tree removal, tree topping, and/or tree pruning, conduct your due diligence, check with your local municipality, and review your Association’s governing documents!

City, County, and local Municipalities

When it comes to tree removal and topping on one’s own property, nearly every County and/or City has its own rules, codes, ordinances, and/or processes that must be followed. Therefore, If you are considering tree removal or topping, you should always check with the appropriate municipality first to make sure that you are:

  1. Allowed to remove, top, or prune the tree in question; and
  2. Follow the proper procedures under which you can remove, top, or prune the tree (i.e. submittal and review of a tree removal plan, obtaining a permit, and/or providing for any required “re-planting,” and/or environmental habitat protection plan).

Subsequently, check your Association’s governing documents, including Architectural Control Committee (“ACC”) Guidelines, for any regulations that have been imposed on members related to trees, tree rights, and/or tree removal. Keep in mind that if a conflict exists between the municipality’s regulations and the Association’s governing documents, the municipality’s rules, codes, ordinances, and/or processes will generally prevail.

These Trees are Mine!

Do not remove or top trees located on property that you do not own! This includes “shared” or common trees that straddle a common boundary line. A tree, standing directly upon the line between adjoining owners, so that the boundary line passes through it, is the common property of both parties, whether marked or not; and a claim for timber trespass will exist if a person cuts and destroys it without the consent of the other.

Happy Bunch, LLC v. Grandview North, LLC, 142 Wn. App. 81, 93, 173 P.3d 959 (2007). An owner that effects the removal of a shared tree, without consent of the other owner, is in violation of RCW 64.12.030 and can be held liable for trespass and treble damages for the value of the cut tree by multiplying the tree’s value by the percentage of the tree’s trunks that had been growing on the plaintiff’s property. Happy Bunch at 94.

Size Matters: Sometimes

Protected trees will be designated by a City and/or County, but often times include trees that are larger than a certain size or those that are located in a certain geographical area (i.e. wetland, steep slope, or other designated environmentally critical areas). Therefore, check with your local municipality to make sure you are not removing or topping a tree that is protected.

Your View is not Your Right

Owners of real estate in Washington have never been afforded any blanket or automatic view right. This can be frustrating to many homeowners in this area, as we have some of the best views to offer. However, the only view rights that are available to homeowners are those that are provided in covenants, plats, or appropriate agreements recorded against the property or properties in question. We often see such covenants in homeowners associations that protect views within the community by limiting the height of homes, certain ancillary structures, foliage, and/or trees.

Check Before you Cut: Tree Removal Disputes can be Messy

While you may be a proud tree-hugging Washingtonian or longing for the view that you know you should have, if only the tree on the edge of your property was topped, make sure you know what you are buying into when you have anything done to the trees on your property. You will appreciate the ability to spend your money and your time enjoying additional foliage or the perfect seat to enjoy your view rather than paying an attorney to negotiate or litigate your way out of a messy situation you created by not making sure you had the right to do with “your trees” what you wanted to do with them.

by Michael D. Brandt and Molly E. Mueller