When it comes to property damage from trees, who is responsible? Reader wants to take on the city for refusing to let her cut down a healthy tree.

Q: I just finished reading your article What Happens if My Neighbor’s Tree Falls?  I live in Orlando, Florida, a hurricane zone. For years we have been told that the laurel oak trees have a root system that’s very close to the surface. These trees, we’re told, are the most dangerous during hurricanes. 

Laurel oak trees can cause property damage

In 2004, I had about a 40-foot laurel oak that came down in my yard and my neighbor’s yard during a hurricane. It just missed our homes. I have two other laurel oaks that are now 60 feet tall. They are about 30 feet from my home and my neighbor’s home. My neighbor and I are very afraid that these two trees are going to fall on one or both of our homes. I interviewed several companies that take trees down to get estimates, and they all agreed It would be a smart idea to take them down.

They told me to apply with the city to get a permit to take these trees down. The city inspector said the trees were healthy so he couldn’t justify taking them down. My application was rejected. The city wants a tree canopy. They want homes to have tall trees. My neighbor and I are senior citizens on fixed incomes.

I would not take these trees down except for the fact that I feel they’re very dangerous. I get so worried anytime a really bad wind, storm, tornadoes, or hurricanes approaches.

Cutting down trees without a permit

If I cut the trees down without the permit, I could get fined. The city could charge me a minimum of $300 per inch of diameter for each tree plus an additional fee. The city inspector said if I was worried, I could just have them trimmed. I have had trees trimmed in the past. I found trimming is almost as expensive as taking the trees down completely. I’d have to do that at least every two years. Financially, that would be a great burden.

This is my question: Lets assume one of the trees falls on my home or my neighbor’s home. Would I have a case for suing the city for not letting me take these trees down? I just don’t know where to turn.

Can the city be sued if property damage is caused by falling trees?

A: There’s a lot to unpack here. The city wants to encourage the beautification of its neighborhoods. If every homeowner decided to cut down trees that are within 20 feet of a building, you’d likely see a desert landscape without any trees. We think that local real estate values would likely suffer as the aesthetics of the area change.

Having said that, your predicament (and anguish) is real. You’d like to cut down two trees because you can’t afford to trim the trees to a healthy state every two years. The city assumes you can afford to maintain your property.

Hurricanes can cause catastrophic property damage

Everyone knows that violent storms and hurricanes can physically decimate wide swaths of a community. It’s likely that in a direct or near-direct hit, even a Category 1 hurricane will pick up trees and debris from larger distances and cause significant damage.

Lesser wind storms could hit your area and also cause significant damage. We suspect that the city inspector would allow you to cut down the trees:

  • If they were unhealthy
  • Appear to be situated in a way that could pose damage to homes in what we’d call minor storm systems.

Hire a professional arborist to evaluate your trees

We don’t know who you interviewed to look at your trees. But our own experience has taught us to beware. Companies eager for business may encourage you to cut down trees because that’s their revenue stream. Instead, consider hiring an arborist to look at the trees and evaluate how likely it is that they will withstand a storm.

The Orlando inspector believes the trees are healthy and shouldn’t be removed. You believe otherwise. But, is your belief reasonable? Again, we think it’s unreasonable to insist that every healthy tree within 20 to 30 feet of a home should be taken down.

New information about your trees and potential property damage 

Unfortunately, disagreeing with the inspector’s point of view doesn’t mean your municipality would have liability should the trees fall in a future storm and cause damage. To find out, talk with an attorney who has municipal litigation experience. If the trees are healthy, and if a storm does take them down, it might be considered an Act of God. In that case, your local municipality would likely not be responsible for that type of loss. You and your insurance company would be on the hook. That may be what’s really worrying you. If so, it’s worth taking another look at your homeowners insurance policy.

On the other hand, an arborist in your area can give you a better understanding of what kind of storm strength would bring down laurel oaks. You might take comfort if you find out your trees might only be susceptible to falling in the worst sort of weather.

Of course, if the arborist confirms that the trees are in bad shape or are likely to come down on your homes, you can approach the inspector again with that new information.

Read more about property damage from trees:

Neighbor’s Tree Fell on My House – Who Pays for Damages?

©2023 by Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

Sign up for Ilyce’s newsletter: Love, Money + Real Estate