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Question DetailsAsked on 11/6/2013

My neighbors property is higher then mine by 3-4 feet. Can I cut his tree roots and NOT threaten his trees to fall

He has maybe 10 neglected large trees 2 feet to 10 feet from his picket fence, on HIS side. On MY side of his picket fence there has been a small 2 foot to 3 foot railroad tie type RETAINING WALL.
Through the years his trees roots have helped to destroy this wall. We are having this wall replaced in December with the same material.
The contractor mentioned he would have to cut through the roots to make a straight wall which of course makes sense.
My neighbor is in Florida until February and I would like his opinion on this since it involves my wall holding up the now sloped land that his recently replaced fence posts are on, plus they are HIS trees that I fear could possibly WEAKEN and TOPPLE OVER ONTO MY HOUSE if on MY side, we cut his roots for our NEW RETAING WALL . He cannot be reached.
My house is maybe5 feet from his fence, important maybe to note.

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3 Answers


This is a common issue - and the obvious answer before cutting significant roots (other than the small hairy feeders) is to talk to an attorney about property rights and boundary issues in your state. Generally, while you can cut overhanging branches and intruding roots on your side of the property line, if it is going to kill or seriously injure the plant or remove structural support for it, most states require that you legally notify him of your intent at least a certain number of days before your action to give him time to remedy the issue his way if he wishes. In some states, ANY work of that type other than what would be called routine pruning requires advance notice. I would think you could find a way to contact him - by certified mail (if mail is being forwarded to him or picked up by someone for him) or by call forwarding to get an address.

The simplest solution is to replace the wall with one that does not require cutting roots. A 2-3 foot railroad tie retaining wall is not very high and does not carry much load. Since the roots presumably stop right at the back of the wall now, the simple solution is to move the new retaining wall a few inches forward of where the existing one is so it can be built straight without any excavation (other than removing the existing ties), and put crushed stone behind in the small gap left. That way you cut labor cost cutting the roots, and avoid damaging the trees or risking removing support on your side of the fence, which if only 2-5 feet away would certainly be a concern if you cut main roots. If you put copper sulfate root killer in the fill behind the ties it may inhibit the roots from pushingon the wall also.

My recommendation for almost any retaining wall other than structural concrete is to either stairstep it, or to lean it back into the slope 10% - that way it not only generally looks better (as perfectly vertical retaining walls tend to look like they are leaning forward - an optical illusion), and it also allows them to tilt a fair amount before they start of fail by toppling over or look like they are failing.

Answered 6 years ago by LCD


Thank you LCD for your response.

My neighbors tree roots have through the years helped in a large way to destroy this wall.

The ones that are disturbing are the ones that did the most damage, they seem to have pushed their way through the original wall, thereby loosening and dislodging the RR ties.

I would say this is the case for 2 or 3 of them. And THOSE are the roots in the way.

One comes out the bottom of the 2-3 foot slope that we have now, and then the top of it is visable along the lawn growing underground, heading to the other side of our yard. The other comes under his fence too and appears half way down the slope, makes a turn where the wall will be, and goes back into his yard.

I cannot pull the wall away from this mess because the path to my backyard on that side of the house is only 3 feet wide with the wall where it has been for the past 55 years.

I guess the only solution is to have it constructed literally AROUND his roots in an effort to prevent his trees from toppling into my house in the future.

If I have permission from him over the phone to cut his roots, and he promises to cut down his trees, next year and does actually follow through what a relief it would be. MY concern is that he most likely will not follow through with his promise. It could then get messy if you know what I mean.

We have always been very astute taking care of our grounds. This issue has evolved because my mom was very ill for many years and medical issues were a priority and so no one noticed the wall weakening from age and his tree roots.

If I consult an attorney, LCD, what specialty should he have? We live near Boston, Ma.

Answered 6 years ago by me2


OK - I was afraid you would say his roots were coming across your yard too. That introduces another concern for you - if your house is only 4-5 feet from the trees, then the roots could easily be up against your foundation and not only pentrating your foundation walls (which eventually causes cracking and openings for water to come in) but also will destroy your waterproofing on the outside of basement walls by creeping between it and the wall, and can also push the wall inward if the roots are very large.

However, just cutting the roots off at the wall cut or the fenceline will almost certainly result in one or more toppling in the next wind coming from your side of the line. Good news - likely to fall away from your house (but not guaranteed, as the leeward side roots act as cantilever support beams the same time the windward ones act as tension cables and cantilever beams) but, since you said they are large trees, likely to fall onto his buildings or car and result in a significant legal issue.

If you go the legal route, then a Property Rights attorney is what you are after - ones who deal with land boundary disputes, rental and lease and sale agreement issues, etc. I would not trust a phone call agreement with the owner because you cannot prove it in court, but I would not do a legal "going to do it regardless so there" nastygram first either. If he is getting mail forwarded (mail carrier or local postmaster should be willing to tell you that) you could have an attorney draw up a legal letter for him to sign - basically a non-objection to you cutting the roots as necessary to maintain your wall. However, that does not solve the tree stability problem, which really calls for the trees to be either trimmed significantly in height or removed when you cut the roots.

Other alternatives to your situation, as I see it -

1) replace the wall, notching out the backs of the railroad ties some to accomodate the roots, which for a 2-3 foot high wall would probably not harm its integrity much if the notches only went less than half way through the timbers, as a 2-3 foot slope that has been there for awhile is pretty stable for itself, unless the soil is very sandy or silty.

2) wait till he comes back to get a written agreement on cutting the roots and trimming the trees, or removing the trees entirely

3) build up fill on your side at a flatter slope or extend your yard surface at a higher level to stabilize the slope (by reducing the slope height) to replace the wall, but keeping proper drainage away from your house, which could be difficult given the limited width available

4) replace the wood wall with random stacked riprap wall - say 1-2' range large angular (blasted rock) stones placed against it. The latter will stop the roots from encroaching further at the wall, because they will not grow into open air spaces between the rocks appreciably, whereas they love the damp back surface of walls. However, this is a more expensive solution in most cases, unless you can find a cheap source of rock and have a pickup or trailer to haul it yourself. Stacked rocks (I am talking random facing stones, not a true wall, so it will not be noticeable if the roots pluch out a bit more, and easy to replace if a few get pushed out of place - make them big enough to have soem weight to stay in place, but no so big two people cannot move them around or slide them up a board if an area of the slope tumbles in the future - that way you avoid having to hire someone to do it if needed, assuming you are physically able.

5) Replace the wall with shrubs that would stabilize the slope with their roots - after all, unless you are in loose sand or silt/clay, that high a slope that has been there for a long time will typically stand pretty much by itself if protected from heavy rain

6) If you were really nasty and sneaky (though risking legal action), you could drill holes in the roots on your side and pool Ortho Roundup (the kill-all type) in the holes and cover with a wood or asphalt plug and wait for the trees to die in a month or three, then hope he will take them down once dead.

If you do replace the wall (or even if you use the stone or additional fill solution), I would treat the exposed excavation surface and the first few inches of fill in front of it with a good coating of copper sulfate (common component in sewer and foundation root killers) to kill future root intrusion. Will work for some years, plus you can always dig in a very shallow trench with more in the future and let it leach down. Kills the root growing into it, and except with very sensitive ornamentals does not kill the main tree itself. It works prodominately as a contact inhibiter, rather than as a systemic poison. However, doing this might damage grass or other plantings within a foot or so on your side of the wall where it leaches out.

Good luck

Answered 6 years ago by LCD

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