In early 2019, Washington Court of Appeals (Division I) heard arguments from two neighbors, one claiming the other’s tree was a nuisance. The court’s published decision provides a figurative (but clear) fence around neighbors’ conflicting rights, providing guidance for neighbors to amicably settle their arguments. See Boyle v. Leech, 436 P.3d 393 (Wash. Ct. App. 2019).
The Boyle’s neighbor, the Leeches, had a large, coastal redwood tree planted approximately 80 years ago. The tree was located wholly within the Leeches’ property boundary, with branches ending approximately 50 ft. from the Boyles’ property. Wind blew debris from the tree onto the Boyle’s property, sometimes staining the Boyles’ property. The stains from the debris often required power washing or other strong cleaning products. Eventually, the Boyles hired an arborist to inspect the Leeches’ tree. The arborist determined the tree was dying slowly, which caused the excessive sap and cone production. The tree’s sap and cones contained tannic acid, which caused the staining. However, the tree was not a high risk and there was low potential for critical failure. Despite the low likelihood of the tree falling, the arborist recommended removal “due to client’s motivations, and the potential for continued and worsening damage to surrounding property.” Id.
The Boyles filed a nuisance action against the Leeches, seeking $5,000 in damages and a court order requiring the Leeches to abate the nuisance. The Leeches were granted summary judgment as the Boyles failed to establish a prima facie case of nuisance.
Generally, a nuisance is “an unreasonable interference with another’s use and enjoyment of property.” Id. (citing Wallace v. Lewis County, 134 Wn. App. 1, 18, 137 P.3d 101 (2006)). To determine whether one’s use of their property is “unreasonable,” Washington courts balance the rights, interests, and convenience unique to the case. Id. The court determined the Leeches were not unreasonable, especially given that the tree is wholly within their property boundaries. Without a finding that the Leeches’ “use” of their tree was unreasonable, the Boyles’ nuisance claim failed as a matter of law and the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of the Leeches.
In its analysis, the court distinguished the facts from other cases where encroaching roots or branches were deemed nuisances. The court noted that in order to abate those nuisances, however, the tree owner may only be required to trim the branches or roots back to where they no longer encroach on the neighbor’s property. Additionally, the court stated that even if the trimmed trees shed leaves and needles onto the neighbor’s property, the neighbor must “endure positively without remedy.” Id. (citing Gostina v. Ryland, 116 Wash. 228, 235, 199 P. 298, 301 (1921)).
The Boyle decision provides a clearer picture as to when a tree is or is not a nuisance. While the decision might leave a possibility for an exception (i.e. a dying tree), it provides strong authority that a tree which wholly exists within the owner’s land is generally not a nuisance – even if it is naturally shedding debris that causes damages.
By: Alex Wilson