Understanding the Law
September 9, 2011
Those trees in your neighbourhood

Trees are essentially one of nature’s greatest gifts to mankind. They provide us with some of the essentials of life and improve the quality of the air by acting as a big strainer.

Not only do trees provide us with life saving oxygen and absorb our waste (carbon dioxide), but they also provide food and sustenance.{{more}} Trees could be put to a wide range of uses and could bring economic benefit to the owners. The esthetic value is comparable to none, but trees could pose the greatest danger if placed wrongly and not maintained properly. As a child, I remember the great threat that our neighbour’s breadfruit tree posed to our house. It towered over us, reminding us of its strength and might. It became more menacing during the hurricane season when gale force winds shook its massive branches to and fro dangerously. No amount of persuasion could move that reluctant neighbour, but it eventually came down to reporting to the relevant authority. Strange enough, in April 2011, almost all the breadfruit trees in the direct path of hurricane Tomas were either uprooted or broken down, including an off shoot of that breadfruit tree that had caused us great fear.

The harm that trees could cause

In some temperate countries, there is a drive to relieve the summer heat of the concrete pavement with trees on sidewalks. An aerial view of some areas would show more trees than houses. Those persons in authority are proud of their tree- lined or tree-covered cities. This obsession with trees has caused the authorities to turn a deaf ear to persons who complained of the nuisance level of massive trees on the sidewalk. When the trees are young they pose very little problem, but when they mature they tend to be too large for the little space on the sidewalks. Huge trees on the sidewalks could pose some serious problems. Furthermore, they could become dangerous missiles in windstorms and snowstorms and could account for loss of life and destruction of property. More recently is the experience with hurricane Irene, where fallen trees and broken branches contributed significantly to the damages. Uprooted trees fell on electric wires causing widespread power outages. They also damaged houses and in some instances killed persons. Television cameras zoomed in on rotten parts of some fallen trees, indicating the presence of diseases that were hitherto undetected. Roots, too, can damage the foundation of houses, and you may have to account in a court of law for the neighbour’s damages. If your trees throw leaves that block a drain that result in water damage, you would be accountable.

Tree maintenance

Hurricane Irene showed that much as we need the trees they should not be planted closely to houses, and even though we have to plant trees close to a house that greater attention has to be paid to the maintenance of trees. Those cities with their tree planting policy must make sure that trees are carefully examined for diseases and greater attention be given to pruning of branches so that trees do not become top heavy. Trees are good windbreakers but they must not have too many heavy branches that would give wind and snow that leverage. Hence where government policy provides for the planting of trees, it must also provide for maintenance. Private individuals must also take the necessary precaution not to have trees that would cause harm to their neighbours. They must estimate the possible danger to the neighbour by taking into consideration the height of the tree. Attention must also be given to the distance of the branches from the other person’s property. Be careful not to put another person in harm’s way. Cut back your trees this hurricane season.

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.
E-mail address is: exploringthelaw@yahoo.com