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Opinion Northwest

Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.

November 25, 2013 at 5:56 AM

Is a tree owner responsible for fallen leaves?

These have the right to go anywhere they want (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

These have the right to go anywhere they want
(Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

If your neighbor’s tree dumps leaves on your roof, who is responsible?

You are.

Cy Baumgartner (whose name felicitously means “tree gardener” in German) received that message Nov. 21 from King County District Judge Arthur Chapman. It was a happy note for Baumgartner, because the tree in the dock was his. He lives and works on Mercer Island, running an insurance agency from his home and growing a tree in his yard.

Baumgartner’s tree is a bigleaf maple, a big bigleaf maple, which around here is the Paul Bunyan of leaf-producers. His neighbor had had enough of Baumgartner’s detritus clogging his gutters and leafletting his lawn. The neighbor raked Baumgartner into court. At the trial Oct. 24, the judge asked Baumgartner what he had to say for himself. Baumgartner replied that he never thought “nature’s disrobing” imposed an obligation on him.

The judge took it under advisement, consulted the law and a few days later dismissed the case with prejudice.

“The law in Washington makes no provision for such a claim,” the judge ruled. A branch that breaks and damages someone else’s property is another matter, he said, but “falling leaves are considered to be a natural occurrence.”

If owners are bothered by branches overhanging their property, the judge said, “the remedy is to trim the branches back to the property line at their own expense.”

For a moment I wanted to argue against this ruling. I was thinking of one tree from one owner. I have a tree like that, a mountain ash that scatters leaves and little red berries all over a parking lot, and several times this fall I have swept them up because it’s my tree.

But the law has to apply to the forest, not just one tree. Think of a windy day in November, with leaves blowing all over, mixing together and flinging themselves onto yards, roofs, sidewalks and streets. Think also of the work of the courts, and how they could be clogged worse than a downspout if they had complaints from every homeowner who refused to climb a ladder.

The law makes sense. Wind-blown leaves on your property are your problem.

POLL: What do readers think?

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