Fences

I was honored to talk about boundary line disputes on this week’s Real Estate Radio Boston broadcast on WBZ 1030, hosted by Rick Scherer and Ali Alavi, Esq. The broadcast is below. Just click the Play button to listen! Or click on this link:  Real Estate Radio Boston | Richard Vetstein.

Tune into the broadcast every Saturday night from 8pm-9pm on WBZ 1030 AM. It’s a fantastic show!

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recy3Triple Damage Penalty for Willful Cutting Of Neighbor’s Trees 

Neighbors typically get really mad when you chop down their trees. Really mad….and it can get the guy with the chainsaw into a lot of legal trouble. Can you say “triple damages”?

First enacted in 1698, the Massachusetts illegal tree cutting law (General Laws chapter 242, section 7) provides for up to triple damages for the malicious cutting, trimming, or destroying of another’s trees:

A person who without license willfully cuts down, carries away, girdles or otherwise destroys trees, timber, wood or underwood on the land of another shall be liable to the owner in tort for three times the amount of the damages assessed therefor; but if it is found that the defendant had good reason to believe that the land on which the trespass was committed was his own or that he was otherwise lawfully authorized to do the acts complained of, he shall be liable for single damages only.

That said, I always advise property owners who intend to cut trees near boundary lines to consult a survey or plot plan to ensure that the trees are not on their neighbor’s land.

Measure of Damages: Restoration Cost Value

The measure of damages for those harmed by the willful cutting of trees varies from case to case. The most common measure of damages is either the value of the timber cut, restoration cost, or the resulting diminution in value of the property. A claimant is entitled to assert a claim for either value, whichever is highest.

Where the trees cut are tall, hard to replace or have a particular function like screening, or all the above, it is wise to engage a certified arborist to perform a comprehensive restoration cost analysis. The restoration cost analysis takes into account the aesthetics, functionality, age, height, girth, and species of the trees, and formulates a restoration value for the replacement of the removed trees. The method, known as cost-of-cure, involves determining the cost of planting trees and the estimated time for the replacement trees to grow to the size of the destroyed trees (years to parity).

In recent cases, Land Court judges have awarded $30,000 (tripled) for the cutting of 10 mature oak trees and nearly $45,000 (tripled) for the clearing of an 800 square foot woodland area which provided privacy screening. In both of these cases, expert arborist testimony was offered on the restoration cost of the cut trees. And who can forget the case where a Somerset family recovered a $150,000 wrongful death settlement after a women dropped dead after her neighbor wrongfully cut down a swath of sentimental trees.

Branches Over The Property Line

Under Massachusetts common law, you may remove branches of a neighbor’s tree extending over your property line as long as you don’t kill or damage the tree. Also, the neighbor has no liability for roots growing into your yard and causing damage. Massachusetts law does not allow a person to cross or enter a neighbor’s property for these purposes without the neighbor’s consent, nor to remove any branches or other vegetation within the confines of the neighbor’s property. This is the “Massachusetts Rule.”

Utility Tree Cutting

I’ve been reading about many recent disputes between property owners and utility companies (Wayland v. NStar) over tree cutting within utility easements. The law provides a public utility the right to remove or trim your tree if it interferes with the necessary and reasonable operation of the utility. Furthermore, the utility is required to perform tree trimming as part of its program to maintain reliable service for its customers. The National Electric Safety Code requires utilities to trim or remove trees growing near power lines that threaten to disrupt service. Proper and regular tree trimming helps prevent the danger and inconvenience of outages.

Lastly, landscapers and tree cutting companies should get a signed directive from the homeowners and an indemnification prior to cutting trees, as my fellow real estate attorney Chris McHallam points out.

If your trees have been wrongfully removed by a neighbor or if you have mistakenly removed trees, you should consult an experienced Massachusetts property law attorney. Valuation of trees is a science, rather complicated, and best left to the professionals.

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Richard D. VetsteinRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who has handled numerous illegal tree cutting and boundary line disputes. Please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508.620.5352.

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property-line-survey-getty_f11341f289ae931d07403cac3726db78_3x2_jpg_300x200_q85Trial Report: Winiker v. Bell (Middlesex Superior Court CA 09-907)

I was lead trial counsel in a week-long adverse possession/boundary line dispute case back in August in Middlesex Superior Court before Judge Bruce Henry. We had closing arguments last week, and the judge’s decision just came down. I’m thrilled to report that we prevailed! Hard work (lots of it) does indeed pay off…

Judge Henry drafted a 13-page well-reasoned opinion, which I’ve embedded below. By and large, the judge accepted my view of the facts and the law, and cited many of the cases which I referenced in my briefs. The claimants, having been unable to establish adverse possession, were ordered by the judge to remove their driveway and retaining wall which encroaches onto my client’s property.

Some take-aways from the case:

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. I had a lot more work on my side, with 8 testifying witnesses and a binder full of exhibits. I prepared for a solid two weeks before this trial, and by the trial, I knew every blade of grass and rock on the disputed area. I also had deposition testimony of the claimants which I used to impeach them when they inevitably changed their stories or failed to remember key details. I also had blowups of aerial photos of the property which were very helpful. Lastly, I convinced the trial judge to take a “view” of the property, so he could see the layout of the property himself. My opponent had much more trial experience than me, so I had to overcompensate by knowing the facts and law inside and out.
  • Track down old owners. Since my opponents were claiming adverse possession going back to the 1960’s, the first and most important thing we had to do was to track down all the old owners of my client’s property, and put together an accurate historical timeline of the property. Including my client, there were seven owners of the property! This was the only way my client could mount a defense against the claim. One of the old owners lived in Florida, and he came up to testify about having pig roasts near the disputed area, among other stories. Other former owners testified and a few were not exactly thrilled to be dragged into court.
  • Establish a theory of the case. Going into the trial, I knew that the claimants’ use of the disputed property — lawn mowing, landscaping, storing construction materials and snow plowing — was arguably not strong enough to establish adverse possession. I also knew that they did nothing to prevent the owners of my client’s property from accessing the disputed area. I hammered them continuously on each of the required elements of adverse possession, eventually punching holes in the foundation of their case. I also had to be a bit ruthless. My opponents’ age was in their 70’s, so I had to exploit their memory lapses. An amusing moment was when the husband produced an old photo of his 3 kids, but when questioned, could not remember the names or ages of his own children!

With yet another win under my belt, I have built a solid niche practice area in Massachusetts adverse possession law and boundary line disputes. I really enjoy working on these types of cases as they are factually intensive and usually have a fair share of nasty neighbor drama!

Listen to my recent radio appearance on boundary line disputes and adverse possession! Click play.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts adverse possession and boundary line dispute attorney who has tried numerous adverse possession cases in Land Court and Superior Court. Please contact me if you are dealing with a Massachusetts adverse possession dispute.

Samuel Winiker v. Kimberly BellJudgment, Findings of Fact and Rulings of Law

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69 Year Old Woman Found Dead After Neighbor’s Handyman Cuts 30-foot Arborvitaes; Estate Recovers $150,000 Wrongful Death Settlement

In a tragic case out of Somerset, Massachusetts reported by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, a woman’s estate has recovered a $150,000 wrongful death settlement after she dropped dead when her neighbor cut down a row of trees which she and her husband planted 40 years ago.

According to Taunton lawyer Claudine A. Cloutier, who represented the woman’s estate, the neighbor hired a worker to remove some of the trees. When the woman discovered they had been cut down, she apparently became emotionally distraught. Her son found her dead in a chair the next day. There were no signs of trauma. Her estate brought negligence and tort claims against the neighbor, alleging wrongful death partially caused by stress arising from the destruction of the plants. The case went to mediation, and was settled before trial for $150,000.

Massachusetts Illegal Tree Cutting Law

Disputes over tree pruning and cutting are very common in Massachusetts. Indeed, Massachusetts has one of the oldest tree cutting and trimming laws on the books which provides for triple damages for any illegal cutting:

A person who without license willfully cuts down, carries away, girdles or otherwise destroys trees, timber, wood or underwood on the land of another shall be liable to the owner in tort for three times the amount of the damages assessed therefor; but if it is found that the defendant had good reason to believe that the land on which the trespass was committed was his own or that he was otherwise lawfully authorized to do the acts complained of, he shall be liable for single damages only.

Nevertheless, at common law, a neighbor may remove branches extending over a shared property line onto his or her own property. Also, the neighbor has no liability for roots growing into your yard and causing damage. Massachusetts law does not allow a person to cross or enter a neighbor’s property for these purposes without the neighbor’s consent, nor to remove any branches or other vegetation within the confines of the neighbor’s property. You can trim the branches and roots back, but you cannot kill the tree. This is the “Massachusetts Rule.”

Damages are assessed that either the market value of the timber or the replacement cost of the trees. Replacement cost typically requires the assistance of an expert arborist or landscaper. In a case out of Martha’s Vineyard, the appeals court upheld a $30,000 award for the replacement cost of 10 mature oak trees. Upon a finding of maliciousness under the tree cutting law, those damages were tripled.

Before cutting, trimming or pruning trees on or near your property line, it’s always a good idea to consult your plot plan or survey and speak to your neighbor before taking out the chain saws.

Utility Tree Cutting

I’ve been reading about many recent disputes between property owners and utility companies (Wayland v. NStar) over tree cutting within utility easements. The law provides a public utility the right to remove or trim your tree if it interferes with the necessary and reasonable operation of the utility. Furthermore, the utility is required to perform tree trimming as part of its program to maintain reliable service for its customers. The National Electric Safety Code requires utilities to trim or remove trees growing near power lines that threaten to disrupt service. Proper and regular tree trimming helps prevent the danger and inconvenience of outages.

More ResourcesMassachusetts Law Library

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experience real estate attorney who has litigated numerous illegal tree cutting cases. If you are dealing with a Massachusetts unlawful tree cutting or trimming situation, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or via email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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The old Robert Frost poem Mending Wall goes “Good fences make good neighbors.” But a neighbor can quickly turn from good to bad when a they maliciously construct a “spite fence” on the property line. And that includes Sarah Palin who installed this 14 feet monstrous fence at her Wasilla, Alaska home.

What Is An Illegal Spite Fence?

Spite fences are those which neighbors put up extremely close to the other neighbor’s property for the purpose of annoying or inconveniencing the neighbor, and not for any legitimate other reason. In certain circumstances in Massachusetts, courts can rule that certain types of fences are illegal “spite fences,” and order that they be taken down, decreased in height or award damages to the complaining neighbor.

Under the Massachusetts Spite Fence Law (Gen. Laws ch. 49, § 21) ((Interestingly, Massachusetts was one of the first states to enact a spite fence law in 1887)) a fence is an illegal “spite fence” if:

A fence or other structure in the nature of a fence which unnecessarily exceeds six feet in height and is maliciously erected or maintained for the purpose of annoying the owners or occupants of adjoining property….

Whether a fence is an illegal spite fence depends on the circumstances. Usually spite fences are erected where neighbors have been fighting or in a legal dispute of some kind, and the fence is installed as a form of revenge or pay-back. In the vast majority of towns and cities, fences are allowed to be up to 6 feet tall. If the fence in question is over 6 feet tall, and there is evidence that it was installed maliciously, it may be an illegal spite fence.

In a recent dispute on Concord Street in Wilmington (see photo right), a neighbor has installed a very ugly make-shift plywood spite fence with a blue tarp attached. This precipitated a proposal to pass a new fence by-law in Wilmington. I’m not sure of the circumstances surrounding this particular fence, but it is certainly borders on a classic spite fence. In another reported case, the Land Court ordered a neighbor to take down a makeshift fence with spray painted signs and no trespass warnings.

Most folks who erect spite fences will claim the fence is for privacy, but if the home faces an entirely different direction, you can debunk that as a cover for maliciousness. Neighbors may also try to get around the Spite Fence Law by installing a row of trees over 6 feet tall behind the fence. These, too, may be considered illegal.

What Can I Do If My Neighbor Puts Up A Spite Fence?

Under the Spite Fence Law cited above, you can sue your neighbor and ask the court to take down the fence and also seek damages. Under this law and upon a showing of “irreparable harm” the court has the power to impose an injunction ordering that the fence be taken down or reduced to 6 feet tall. Alternatively, the court can award damages.

The difficulty with these cases is that you need to prove you neighbor acted “maliciously” in installing the fence. You will need to marshal evidence to prove that, and that’s where an experienced Massachusetts real estate litigation attorney would add tremendous value. These cases are complex and judges will often require evidentiary hearings before imposing an order taking down a fence. It’s not a “do it yourself” type of situation!

If you are struggling with a boundary line issue or a potential “spite fence,” don’t hesitate to contact me at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com. I have successfully litigated quite a lot of these cases.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate litigation attorney. Mr. Vetstein frequently represents Massachusetts residents in contentious boundary line, fence, and adverse possession cases.

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Click here to read about my most recent adverse possession trial victory.

Massachusetts Adverse Possession Law

Robert Frost ‘s famous poem The Mending Wall says “good fences make good neighbors.” When that fence encroaches over a neighbor’s property line, however, that good neighbor can turn nasty very quickly.

When boundary or encroachments disputes arise, a little known legal doctrine often comes into play:  adverse possession. Adverse possession is a common law concept in Massachusetts under which homeowners may lose title to their land by sleeping on their property rights for 20 consecutive years against a neighbor who has taken actions contrary to their property interests. Yes, a neighbor can effectively take over ownership of your land if you sleep on your rights. Massachusetts adverse possession law reflects a public policy aimed at inducing landowners to actively protect their land.

The classic example of adverse possession is a neighbor who puts up a fence or paves a driveway several feet over their neighbor’s property line, without permission, and this “adverse possession” continues without objection for 20 consecutive years.  Despite the fact that the neighbor’s fence or driveway encroaches the property line, under the adverse possession doctrine, the property owner may lose title to the disputed strip of land by not doing, saying or even knowing anything about it.

Click Play to listen to my latest Radio Appearance on adverse possession!

Requirements For Adverse Possession

A landowner can obtain adverse possession only by filing a lawsuit and establishing several elements of the claim.  (My property law professor used a handy acronym called OCEAN to help students remember them). The use of another’s land must be Open, Continuous (for 20 years), Exclusive, Adverse and Notorious. Each element has its own specific requirements, and all adverse possession cases are very fact-specific. The law does not favor adverse possession, so the burden of proof on the claimant is relatively high.

Adverse possession can also occur through multiple prior owners during the 20 year period under a theory called “tacking.” Adverse possession can also be in the form of an easement, or merely a right to use property, called a “prescriptive easement.” This could apply to the gamut of utility, pathway, or access easements.

Surveys and Stakes

Surveys typically form the genesis, and play an important role in, adverse possession cases. The parties must know where the true lot lines are on the property. Sometimes, there are disputes as to the survey in cases of old, poorly laid out lots. Remember that even if you believe the neighbor is wrong about the lot line, it is against the law in Massachusetts to remove survey stakes. (Mass. General Laws Chapter 266, Section 94).   Also under Massachusetts law, a surveyor is allowed to enter upon your land, with reasonable notice, for purposes of completing a survey.

Tips To Prevent Adverse Possession

The key to preventing adverse possession is to be proactive regarding your boundary lines and property rights. If you suspect an encroachment, obtain a full instrument survey, not a mortgage plot plan which can be inaccurate. If an encroachment is found, consult an attorney for further advice.

Generally, the most effective methods to prevent adverse possession are to:

  • Posting “No trespassing” signs (can be helpful, but is not fail-safe)
  • Physically demarcate lot lines with a fence, gate or the like (survey stakes alone may not be enough)
  • Document giving permission to an encroaching neighbor by written document or agreement
  • For prescriptive easements, record a statutory Notice to Prevent Acquisition of Easement. Note: this notice will not prevent a claim of adverse possession to the entire land.
  • Bring a lawsuit to “quiet title”
  • Submit your land to the Land Court registration system

The more land you own (especially raw woodlands) the more proactive you need to be.

Lastly, when buying new property, consider getting an enhanced title insurance policy which has coverage for encroachments and boundary issues, at a small premium over standard rates.

Adverse Possession Lawsuits

Given the high cost and low supply of land in Massachusetts, adverse possession disputes often wind up in litigation. Adverse possession litigation can be expensive because these cases are very fact-specific and require a fair amount of witnesses, factual investigation, title research, and even expert testimony. Adverse possession cases are generally difficult to win, but they can be successful with the right facts and good preparation.

The Massachusetts Land Court hears adverse possession cases along with the Superior Court. Depending on the facts of the case, the plaintiff can do a bit of “forum shopping” between the two courts.

Click here to read about my most recent adverse possession trial victory.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts adverse possession attorney who’s handled numerous adverse possession cases and trials in Land Court and Superior Court. Please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352 if you are dealing with a Massachusetts adverse possession dispute.

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