Sunday, April 22, 2018

If a tree falls, who owns it?

A reader we're calling, Gil, and his neighbor, Roger, became friendly shortly after Gil and his family bought their house about a decade ago. Since Roger had lived on the property abutting Gil's backyard for more than 30 years, he was quick to share wisdom about the neighborhood and most anything else to which Gil was willing to listen.

Roger was older and made clear to Gil that the two of them did not share political views. Occasionally, Roger was prone to make an inappropriate remark about a particular group of people and Gil was in the habit of regularly calling Roger on why what he said was thoughtless or worse.

Nevertheless, the two neighbors got along well and, as Gil tells it, enjoyed the occasional company of one another.

Shortly after Gil purchased his house, he began to stack fallen twigs and leaves behind a row of trees in the back of his yard. He stopped once Roger pointed out that Gil was "technically" dumping stuff on his property line, which he proceeded to walk off as a way of pointing out to Gil what was Roger's and what wasn't.

Gil was pretty certain that the plot map indicated his twigs and leaves were stacked on his property, but he wanted to avoid an argument, so he began placing them in a heap next to the shed in his side yard - well out of view of Roger's house.

This past winter hit Gil's and Roger's neighborhood hard. Week-long, sub-zero temperatures followed by snowstorms accompanied by 60-plus mile-an-hour winds wreaked havoc. Pipes froze, though luckily nothing burst in Gil's or Roger's houses.

They weren't so lucky when it came to the two 50-foot trees that fell between Gil's and Roger's house. The trees had tipped over, broken, and the root ball had lifted out of the ground. They would need to be removed by a tree service so more damage wasn't done to other trees during a subsequent storm.

Since the trees were right behind where Gil had placed those twigs and leaves years earlier, he asked Roger if he planned to call a tree service to have the felled trees removed.

"I'd be glad to, but they're on your property," Roger responded. Gil then says he walked off the property line to show Gil where it was, although this time it was a few feet back from where Roger had walked off the line years earlier.

Now, Gil wants to know if he should remind Roger that he had claimed that property as his own and get him to pay for the tree removal, even though Gil always believed the property was his? Or should he be a good neighbor, have the trees removed, and eat the cost?

Gil could spend the money on a surveyor to settle who owns what, but that's likely wasted money since his plot plan already points to the land as his. The right thing to do is for Gil to pay to have the trees removed because they are on his property. He should then feel free to dump his twigs and leaves where he originally wanted. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

Liz said...

This is why they say fences make good neighbors.