Massachusetts Laws About Trees in Neighbor’s Yard

from Hingham Real Estate agent Alice Pierce

Tuesday night’s harsh weather brought crackling sharp lightning and house rattling thunder into the Hingham area and beyond. If you could hear anything other than the thunder, you might have also heard the cracking of tree limbs. High winds and driving rains caused some power outages and many toppled trees and broken branches. This brought to mind the quandary regarding property lines, fences and the potential damage of trees and tree limbs.

El Niño Weather Patterns

Given the recent storms and high winds, I researched the topic of a neighbor’s tree falling on my property, or, for that matter, my tree falling on a neighbor’s property. I wanted to explore the different scenarios of responsibility and liability. During my research, I also learned some interesting facts about our weather patterns of late.

The weather in Boston and surrounding areas has been anything but typical and it is all due to the powerful effects of the El Niño phenomena. El Niño is when the Pacific ocean temperatures heat up enough to produce warmer than normal winter weather patterns. That might sound simple, but it is more complex than it appears.

There are three phases involved in this pattern; “El Niño,” “neutral” and “La Niña.” Neutral is the phase where the temperatures of the Pacific are within a normal range, and La Niña is when the ocean waters cool to temperatures that are below average.

Meteorologists call the warming event “El Niño-Southern Oscillation,” or “ENSO” for short. Maybe you wonder exactly how the temperature has to change to qualify as an El Niño. Average ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific must be at least 0.9°F warmer than the average, and that temperature status must be expected to persist for several, consecutive 3-month periods.

I learned that long before this changeable, ocean temperature phenomena was a known weather factor, South American fishermen noticed a correlation between water temperature and fishing. If the coastal waters of the Pacific were warmer than usual, there was a dramatic decrease in yields of fish during the winter months. They nicknamed the phenomenon “El Niño,” which means little boy in Spanish since the decreases in fish corresponded to the celebration of the Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. Sometime in the 1980s the opposite weather pattern of El Niño was discovered and scientists dubbed this “La Niña,” which is Spanish for little girl.

When El Niño warms the ocean surface in the Pacific Ocean, rainfall over Indonesia decreases, and rainfall over the tropical areas of the Pacific increases. The winds running closest to the surface of the sea that usually blow from east to west weaken during El Niño, and can also start blowing from the other direction, or from west to east. The change in wind patterns disrupt the larger air movements in the tropics, and this is what triggers massive weather changes around the world.

These larger wind patterns are what we know as jet streams, a frequently used phrase on our evening news. During El Niño, it is the stream moving from west to east across the southern parts of the United States that creates the probability of severe weather events. Just this week the southern states experienced deadly, devastating tornados. It is also possible that these events are partially to blame for periods of severe drought.

Warm, moist air naturally rises from warm waters. Just think of boiling water for pasta. When the moist air rises up, and disrupts the jet streams, temperature and precipitation patterns change. Usually. To complicate matters, sometimes when the ocean temperatures signal an upcoming El Niño or La Niña, the winds actually don’t change, and neither does the jet stream.

While El Niño increases the chances for atypical winter weather, making a direct correlation is, at this time, impossible. In looking at historical data, it appears that the temperature patterns shift, irregularly, every two to seven years. Each episode typically last 9-12 months, and each develops during the months of March, April, May or June, peaking sometime between November and February before they weaken during the spring or early summer. And even though it is rare for El Niño to last longer than one year, La Niña tends to last for two years or more.

The analysis of El Niños are complex and cannot yield exact predictions. This is because of the unpredictable movement of ocean waters, the location of high temperatures, and the inability to determine when temperatures will cool, how quickly they will cool and by how much. This year the warmest waters in the Pacific are farther west than have been recorded and nobody can explain why this is.

Some weather reports are predicting that El Niño will impact the nation’s weather through the late spring because of the “peak” in January. Weather pattern predictions are partially based on when the water temperature peaks in the Pacific. For example, in 1998, the ocean temperature was the warmest in November and this caused heavy rain to fall in February. The 1983 El Niño pattern peaked in the month of January, and the heaviest rainfall occurred much later, in the months of March and April.

El Niño is likely to become “neutral” by late spring or early summer 2016, with a possible shift to La Niña in the fall. While scientists don’t have a handle on hard and fast predictions, El Niño can be predicted far enough in advance give that time is required to warm something as large as the surface of an ocean. This makes it possible to prepare for severe weather, which can be a life saving action.

For example, El Niño and La Niña appear to have an effect on tornado since a strong jet stream is one variable in severe weather. The actual position of the jet stream can guide predictions to certain regions where tornadoes are more likely. The temperature changes also influence hurricane patterns.

There are some positives to consider when El Niño directs weather patterns in the northeast. One is that our heating bills are lowered, and another is less snow. Additionally, during El Niño, there are likely to be fewer hurricanes than when there is a La Niña.

If you would like to learn more, or monitor the water temperature situation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website is a good place to explore.


el nino and real estate
Maps of sea surface temperature anomaly in the Pacific Ocean during a strong La Niña (top, December 1988) and El Niño (bottom, December 1997). Maps by NOAA, based on data provided by NOAA


Who is Liable if a Tree Falls on a Neighbor’s Property

Along my way to finding some answers, I again learned that the topics of trees, tree damage, responsibility for trees, property and trees, neighbors and trees etc was an information-rich topic. I will write more about trees in future articles, but for now, I want to give you some information in case you need to address a recently fallen tree limb or are concern about a tree.

Whether or not El Niño is to blame for toppling trees and shearing large limbs, someone is ultimately responsible for cleaning up the mess and fixing any damage. The question is, who?

I think that most if us think that the person who owns the tree is responsible for that tree’s behavior. Knowing if a tree is yours is easy; if the trunk grows out of the soil on your property, it belongs to you. Sometimes a tree straddles a property line or the canopy extends farther over your neighbor’s property than yours.

No matter how much canopy overhangs on another person’s property you still own the tree if the trunk is on your land. If the trunk of the tree is directly on the property line it is called a “boundary tree” and both you and your neighbors own the tree. Any expenses related to this tree are split.

This week some real estate customers of mine in Hingham had a large branch come down in the Tuesday night storm. It took down several sections of fence along their property line. The branch clearly came from my customer’s tree, but nobody really knew who the fence belonged to. Fences are another huge real estate topic, but for now, the general rule is, the “pretty side” of the fence faces away from your property.

Anyway, as the photograph shows, the “pretty side” faces my customer’s property. This is not a black and white “rule,” and any neighbor can argue this if they wish to. Thankfully, most of us have good relationships with neighbors and this can be talked about and agreed upon.

So their tree branch fell on the neighbor’s fence and caused damage (obviously) to the fence. It is always a good idea to check with your state’s particular laws regarding anything legal, and the Massachusetts Court System website refers to several cases and a summary.

My customers are not legally responsible for the damage caused by their tree. Morally, they feel moved to take on the financial burden and anyone can choose this route if they want to. But the reason that they are not responsible is because they were not negligent and did not intentionally cause the tree to fall.

The tree in question does not look at all decrepit or ominous. Owning a healthy tree is normal, and no person caused the storms that brought down so many trees. The neighbors could file a claim with their own property insurer if they want to be reimbursed for their loss.

Thank you for reading and always feel free to give me feedback and comments so I can continue to write about what you want to read.

And please visit my Hingham Real Estate website anytime for professional real estate services!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s