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updated: 8/22/2013 8:06 AM

Fences don't make good neighbors when trees branch out

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  • Video: Mundelein trees at issue

  • The weedy trees belong to the business next door, but Illinois law says the limbs hanging over the fence and stretching into Robin Sachs' Mundelein yard are legally her responsibility.

       The weedy trees belong to the business next door, but Illinois law says the limbs hanging over the fence and stretching into Robin Sachs' Mundelein yard are legally her responsibility.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Weedy trees have been growing for years on a small patch of ground behind the parking lot for Quality Hydrualics in Mundelein. But company president John Felsenthal notes that he has no legal obligation to trim branches that grow over the fence and anger gardener and homeowner Robin Sachs.

       Weedy trees have been growing for years on a small patch of ground behind the parking lot for Quality Hydrualics in Mundelein. But company president John Felsenthal notes that he has no legal obligation to trim branches that grow over the fence and anger gardener and homeowner Robin Sachs.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • A tall box elder tree and several invasive buckthorn trees grow over the fence separating Robin Sachs' yard from an industrial park in Mundelein. Illinois law generally says she is free to trim any limb that crosses into her property, but Sachs says she shouldn't be responsible for trimming trees that belong to the business behind her home.

       A tall box elder tree and several invasive buckthorn trees grow over the fence separating Robin Sachs' yard from an industrial park in Mundelein. Illinois law generally says she is free to trim any limb that crosses into her property, but Sachs says she shouldn't be responsible for trimming trees that belong to the business behind her home.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

The gold standard for mediating disagreements might be the old biblical story of King Solomon, who earned his reputation for wisdom after settling a maternity dispute by offering to cut the baby in half. You can't do that with a tree. Tree disputes are complicated, and numerous.

"I am sure there are tens of thousands of cases across the United States," says Jim Skiera, executive director of the International Society of Arboriculture, headquartered in downstate Champaign. The 89-year-old, nonprofit tree advocacy group lives by its motto, "Trees are good." But Skiera admits that not every person finds good in every tree.

"It's blocking my view; it's plugging my sewer; the leaves are falling in my swimming pool; there are bugs falling out of it," Skiera says of the tree beefs he's heard. "There is a whole litany of them."

On winding Derby Lane in Mundelein, 62-year-old gardener Robin Sachs walks into her lovely landscaped backyard boasting hibiscus, peonies, daisies, Russian sage and other pretty plants, and points to the top of her fence where the thick limb of a box elder tree juts 8 feet into her property.

"It's shading my garden," says Sachs.

Two of her clematis vines are climbing a trellis, but the one under the shade of the box elder limb is stunted. A few smaller branches from a trio of invasive buckthorn trees also cross the fence separating her yard from a swath of wild growth behind the parking lot of Quality Hydraulics in the industrial park behind Sachs' home.

After Sachs moved into her duplex in 2006, Quality Hydraulics president John Felsenthal did have his workers trim those trees at Sachs' request. But Felsenthal, 47, notes that he has no legal obligation to do so and has liability worries.

"I don't want to endanger our employees. I am concerned about an employee doing anything on the other side of the fence," says Felsenthal.

In his home neighborhood in Northbrook, Felsenthal had no say when his trees were trimmed by a neighbor, who didn't like the limbs hanging across the property line.

"In my town, those are the rules. What are the rules in Mundelein?" Felsenthal asks.

"We don't have a law that says he has to cut it or she has to cut it," says Pete Schubkegel, building director for Mundelein. He says the village regulates trees on private property only when they are an issue of public safety.

Generally, a homeowner has the right to cut a limb that crosses into his property, but he can't force the tree owner to pay for it. Cut too much or dig into roots and kill the tree, and Illinois' "Wrongful Tree Cutting Act" might require a neighbor to pay the owner three times the value of the tree. Disputes can lead to lawsuits or worse. In 1994, after a long dispute about a 6-foot-high hedge on the property line between their homes, a Rhode Island man spotted his neighbor trimming the hedge with pruning shears, fetched his shotgun and shot the gardener three times. The gunman was sentenced to 40 years in prison on a murder charge.

Tree disputes can become as emotional and heated as divorce cases, says Randall S. Stamen, an International Society of Arboriculture arborist and a lawyer who has build his California law practice around tree cases.

"It's pretty much all I do -- the trees that don't respect property lines," Stamen says. He says he's litigated cases where tree values have gone into six figures, and one case that involved three lawyers, two lawsuits, seven years of legal work and a two-week trial that resulted in a complicated judgment allowing the tree owner to trim the limb on his neighbor's property, but only under an agreement that featured arborists from each side.

At 4-feet-11 and living on her fixed Social Security income, Sachs says she doesn't have the physical or fiscal ability to trim the trees hanging over her garden. But it's not just the cost.

"It's the principle. Why should anybody have to take care of anybody else's property?" she says.

Not one to surrender meekly, Sachs has been calling public servants and elected officials to plead her case. A few years ago, she literally made a federal case out of a similar battle she had with snowplows blocking her mailbox, and that ended with U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk's office helping get her mailbox moved, she says.

Felsenthal has gotten estimates for clearing out the plants and shrubs to meet the village's ordinance against weeds on his small strip of land that abuts Sachs' yard. So has the owner of a 2-acre overgrown vacant lot next door. But Felsenthal says he worries about erosion and whether noise from the industrial park will bother Sachs if the trees are gone. He says he wishes the village would advise him.

"We don't tell you what to plant in your backyard," Schubkegel says, adding that the only way to avoid tree disputes might be a law saying, "Everyone could only plant one tree, 20 feet tall, in the center of your yard."

As it is, the complicated, confusing, inconsistence or nonexistent laws regulating trees make it difficult for anyone to show the wisdom of Solomon. In fact, Solomon's baby case probably would get bogged down these days in pre-split legal arguments about what sword would be used, the responsibility for insuring the swordsman against injury on the backswing and the matter of who would pay to refigure two tax returns with 0.5 dependents.

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