Sunday, August 10, 2008


Once a week a woman in Cypress, Calif., takes a stroll to the local liquor store to get her exercise and to buy her weekly Lotto ticket. While on her constitutional, she regularly passes some lemon trees whose branches extend their fruit out over the sidewalk directly in her path.

"I've never picked a lemon," she writes, "but I've asked my husband and he says that it would be wrong. If the owner of the tree was in his backyard, I could ask him for a piece, but usually that's not the case.

"Those luscious lemons just call out to me at times," she writes.

But picking a piece of fruit from the tree could be considered stealing, she admits.

"Is it illegal," she asks, "or could the owner sue me for taking a piece of fruit?"

Actually, it's the owner of the tree who could find himself on the wrong side of the law: "The City of Cypress does not have ordinances against picking fruit from a tree that overhangs a public sidewalk," says Khuong Truong, a code-enforcement officer for the city, but it does have one that "disallows vegetation to grow into or over the public right of way -- including alleys, sidewalks and streets -- to the extent that passage of pedestrians, bicyclists and motor vehicles is impeded."

Such conditions fall under the category of "public nuisance" and, if the lemon trees' owner lets their branches grow so unruly that they block the passage of pedestrians with their alluring fruit, he could be charged with violating the municipal code.

Supposing that there were no law to keep my reader from plucking a lemon, however, is it right for her to do so, knowing that the tree belongs to someone else?

No. Her inclination to ask the owner's permission is correct. If he's not there, she should wait for an opportune moment when he happens to be in his yard to ask him.

Or, if she simply can't resist the tart temptation, she should knock on his door and make the request. She'd have to be pretty hungry for the fruit to do that, but it's the right course of action if her desire tugs strongly enough.

The owner of the trees should make sure to keep them pruned so as to be in compliance with the city's code. Letting them grow wildly out over the sidewalk, within reach of passing pedestrians, not only plants temptation in their path but also could cost the owner if the city decides to cite him.

There may not be a city rule prohibiting her from taking a piece of low-hanging fruit, but my reader knows that the tree and its fruit belong to someone else. Even if the owner is wrong to leave the fruit so close to her grasp, it's still his tree. She should do the right thing and ask his permission.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

Has anyone heard of "attractive nuisance"? I imagine some hot-ass lawyer would earnestly defend a picker if that person was "injured". So the best thing is to remove the temptation. He could prune or move the "offending " branches so he has more lemons. Anyone picking lemons should ask permission, otherwise it is theft. It is sad that the owner has do do things to protect himself, but I guess I am an idealist who sees the law in black and white.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I think you got it slightly wrong. The way I have always understood it, if a tree hangs over someone else's property, then all parts of the overhang are under the control of the adjacent property owner. That adjacent owner can prune the overhang also pick all that overhanging fruit. And by extension, if the owner of the property where the tree overhangs is a city, then that fruit is available to every citizen of the city. Naturally it is always nice to ask the owner where the tree is growing, but that is only a courtesy, not a requirement.

Bill Rihn
Laguna Beach, California

Anonymous said...

If it's in my yard, it's mine. To be neighborly, however, I wouldn't do anything to the limb without consulting with my neighbor. Nevertheless, even neighborliness doesn't require me to ask my neighbor if I can pick the lemons that are hanging in my back yard. And so for the sidewalk. Goes for berry bushes, too. And Walnuts! Pears! Apples!

Anonymous said...

With respect to your advice concerning, "A tree and its fruit belong to someone else," your ethical point of view is seriously flawed.

Under the law, both common and statutory, the legal right of a tree owner extends to the edge of his property and no further. Or to put it another way, there is an invisible fence around all personal real estate (immovable property) that extends upward around the property all the way to infinity. It also extends downward to the center of the earth. Outside of this invisible fence, the property owner has no standing to complain unless something from without is endangering his real estate within the invisible border. (Such as a nearby meth- lab or a fireworks factory, etc.)

With that in mind, if your neighbor has a fruit tree with branches overhanging your property, perhaps scraping shingles from your roof or dropping fruit all over your yard, you have a legal right to do something about it. And you don't need the neighbor's consent or permission. All of any fruit falling on your property is legally your fruit.

If the neighbor's tree is causing damage to the roof of your house, you have the legal right to whip out your chain-saw and chop down all parts of the fruit tree that extends across the invisible fence surrounding your real estate. That's the law.

In regard to fruit hanging over a public sidewalk, or growing up through the cracks, that fruit is considered to be residing "in the public domain." It belongs to anyone who cares to claim it.
There is no violation of ethics involved.

You might consider these legal facts when giving people advice about fruit hanging over a public sidewalk. Thanks.

Anaheim, CA