By: James C. Dalton
You arrive home after a hard day’s work, only to find that your always-friendly neighbors have begun installation of a pool/patio/cabana complex, and, their excavation is destroying the roots of the majestic oak which stands on your own property (although the roots extend into the neighbor’s property). Surely, this damage and destruction can, and must (!) be stopped…right? Well, not so fast.
The short answer to this question is no, you can’t stop your neighbor’s construction just because it may damage the roots which extend from the tree located on your property. In the 2004 case of Koresko v. Farley, the Pennsylvania Superior Court decided that tree roots which encroach on a neighbor’s property may be removed by that neighbor, as they amount to a trespass on the neighbor’s property. This ruling was based on an earlier Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision which determined that overhanging tree branches constitute a trespass, and can likewise be removed. Even if the roots (or branches) have been there for many years, no rights (or “prescriptive easement” in legal terms) are acquired by the presence of roots or branches over a neighbor’s property.
This is but one example of a situation that can lead to strained relations between neighbors. The types of disputes that arise are limited only by the creativity of property owners and the activities they choose to pursue. Can my neighbor’s kids play basketball until midnight on their highly illuminated, state of the art basketball court? Is my neighbor allowed to run a part time business out of his home? What about their new landscaping which is diverting runoff and eroding my property? Is there anything I can do to reduce or stop it?
The answers depend on the unique facts of each situation, which must be analyzed under the applicable law to assess what remedies are available. The rights of adjoining property owners are controlled by many areas of the law – property law (as determined by court decisions over many years), state and local zoning laws, local ordinances, environmental laws, etc. A proper understanding of your rights and obligations as neighboring property owners can often defuse such disputes, and avoid some of the financial and emotional costs which occur when one or both parties assume they are “right”, or worse, resort to self-help or retaliation.