By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com
My neighbor planted trees on his side of the fence over twenty years ago. Now the roots of those trees have caused my driveway to buckle a little bit. I want him to pay for the repairs. What should I do?
Signed, the Lopsided Parker
Dear Lopsided Parker,
It seems that the halacha is with the tree-planter in this case. The Shulchan Aruch (Choshain Mishpat 155:32) rules according to the view of Rabbi Yossi in Bava Basra 25b. The tree-planter is entirely exempt and is not even considered a grama. The rationale is that these are considered by society as acceptable activities that one may do within his or her own area. The same halacha applies to tree branches as well.
As far as New York State law is concerned (check with a lawyer and this is NOT LEGAL advice), if you find your neighbor’s tree is encroaching on your property you must first warn or give notice to the tree owner before you do any work. You have to give the tree owner a chance to correct the problem. If the tree owner does nothing, the tree can be trimmed, but only up to the boundary line.
The exception to this is when the tree limbs threaten to cause imminent harm. You should document this. You may not 1) cut the entire tree down, nor may you 2) destroy the structural integrity of said tree, nor the 3) cosmetic symmetry and appeal of the tree through improper trimming.
There is a fascinating Midrash (Otzar Midrashim page 538). “There are three things that a person must always pray for Divine Mercy: A good year, a good king, and that a dream should be good. Some add a fourth: a good neighbor.”
BeKitzur (pun intended), when trimming, you have to be very careful.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org