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Thursday, October 24, 2013

It wasn't this complicated for George Washington: Legal Issues Concerning Tree Removal - What you Need to Know

By: Peter J. Lamont, Esq.
New Jersey Business and Personal Law Attorney
Law Offices of Peter J. Lamont

As the fall winds blow the leaves from the trees, you may feel compelled to remove that annoying tree bordering your neighbor's property. Before you grab your chainsaw or hire a tree cutting service, here is what you need to know.
First, ensure the tree in question is actually on your property and not your neighbors. Should you skip this critical step, you may find yourself involved in a potentially expensive lawsuit. Bear in mind sums in excess of $80k have been awarded the plaintiffs in cases where the tree is older.
Bottom line - if you are at all unsure of the ownership of the tree, get a property survey done. The cost is well worth the peace of mind and could save you a substantial amount of money to say nothing of the anxiety of a legal battle.
Next up - a trip or phone call to your municipality administration.
Some New Jersey municipalities attempt to control their community landscapes and there may be ordinances regarding the removal of trees - shade trees in particular. A breach of these ordinances may result in a fine. Fines varying from $100 to $5000 can be imposed; and in some municipalities, a jail sentence of up to 90 days is on the books.
Be prepared to explain why you want to remove the tree, as some NJ municipalities require a valid reason for removal. The Township of West Milford is a case in point, requiring the removal to accomplish a useful purpose. "Tired of raking leaves" is probably not considered useful or valid.
NJ ordinances can be very broad and cover a wide variety of landscape issues - planting, removal, zoning, open space zoning, site plan, etc. Removal ordinances tend to be the most specific, making the municipality contact a "must-do" step.
While dealing with the local government authority. you will no doubt find you need a permit, which they can provide for a fee - before you remove the tree.
Direction and guidance for the removal will be available, and they may be able to provide a list of licensed and capable specialists who can offer advice.
If you are not inclined to tackle this chore yourself or perhaps you are not a do-it-yourselfer; you may decide to hire a specialist.
If this is the case, It is advisable to secure the services of a professional; ensuring they carry insurance - including liability in the event of an accident. Get any agreement in writing, preferably in the form of a contract - clearly spelling out all relevant details including obligations, risk and liability assumption as well as total cost. Also, there is the matter of disposal of the tree which must be addressed. It may be the municipality has specific rules concerning the fate of an eliminated tree. Have your lawyer review any legally binding document before signing.
Give preference to local professionals who will be familiar with the ordinances and regulations which must be followed. Avoid "door-to-door" landscapers whose only qualification is the ownership of a shovel and chain saw.
A reputable tree specialist will not have a problem with any of this and may even bring your attention to matters you had not considered - how power lines issues are to be addressed, for example. (i.e. Does the power company have to be notified?)
Finally on the matter of tree removal professionals, ask for references, preferably a local property owner who had a similar situation.
At this stage, it would be prudent to speak with your neighbors and advise them what you are planning to and when you plan to do it. This will ward off any surprises or objections come removal day. It should be noted that members of the public witnessing a tree removal are advised to call the police in some NJ municipalities. Informing your neighbors you have proper permits and will be doing the removal in a responsible manner will avoid any disruptive and embarrassing visits from the local constabulary - who have more pressing matters to attend to.
Before anything is done, review your homeowner's insurance policy, in conjunction with your lawyer, making sure all your bases are covered. And of course, ensure your premiums are up-to date.
All of which leads us to wonder if George Washington considered any of this before chopping down the cherry tree.
If you would like more information about this topic or have general legal questions, please feel free to contact me at (973)949-3770 or via email at plamont@peterlamontesq.com We answer legal questions on a daily basis and would be happy to discuss any issues or questions that you have with you.  Offices in: New Jersey New York, Colorado & Puerto Rico.  Affiliated throughout the country.

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