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Hawaii News | Kokua Line

Kokua Line: Whether tree is a nuisance decides who pays pruning bill

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Question: My neighbor’s tree encroaches so far over my property that I worry during every windstorm that my roof will cave in. I know that I am allowed to cut the branches back to my property line, but can I make him pay for it? This is a big tree and it’s going to be expensive.

Answer: Yes, if there is “imminent danger” that the tree will cause “sensible harm” to property other than plant life, according to a 1981 ruling by Hawaii’s Intermediate Court of Appeals which stands as the prevailing guide in such disputes between private property owners.

If overhanging branches or protruding roots damage your property (other than plant life) or are in imminent danger of doing so, you may require the tree owner to cut back the branches or roots and to pay for damage that has already occurred. If the property owner fails to trim the tree within a reasonable time, you can hire out the work at the tree owner’s expense.

It might be helpful to print out a copy of the ruling for your neighbor so that he understands the legal basis for your request. You could include it with a polite letter informing him that his tree is a nuisance and must be trimmed. You can find the opinion, Whitesell v. Houlton, at

The primary issues before the appellate court were whether a tree owner had a duty to prevent his tree from damaging his neighbor’s property and whether he was liable for the damage caused. The appeals court answered “yes” to both questions, affirming a district court decision.

To be clear, the answer to your question is a qualified “yes” (assuming that you are not exaggerating the risk), because you believe the branches themselves will fall on and damage your roof.

By contrast, the opinion specifies that overhanging branches which “merely cast shade or drop leaves, flowers or fruit” are not a nuisance, which leads us to our next question.

Q: I hate to complain about plumeria trees, because they are beautiful. But my neighbor has a lot of them, and they are overgrown and cross the fence. They drop petals and leaves in my yard, where I am trying to get grass to grow. I am willing to trim them back. Is my neighbor obligated to help pay for it?

A: No, because fallen petals and leaves covering your new grass wouldn’t count as nuisances causing sensible harm, under the prevailing opinion.

You are free to cut back the trees to your own property line at your own expense, the ruling states. Of course, you could ask your neighbor to contribute anyway, even though he is not obligated to pay.

We generally encourage neighbors to work together to resolve these types of problems, to ensure that trees are trimmed properly and safely.


In the past four months I have had great experiences at the DMV and the Social Security office. The processing systems for both services are good, and they work. You just have to be patient and allow yourself time. Most recently, the female clerk at the Social Security office was very pleasant, helpful and patient with me. I went there Sept. 5 around lunchtime to window No. 7. I didn’t get her name but she really made my day. Mahalo. — Donna Y.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank the kind and thoughtful person who found my prescription package Sept. 9 at Pearl City Longs in the wagon and turned it in to the store. I placed my shopping bag on top of my prescription package and then absentmindedly just grabbed my shopping bag and went to my car. I realized I forgot it when I got home, and called Longs and was told someone had turned it in. Thank you for your kindness as it was greatly appreciated. — M.W.

Write to Kokua Line at Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu 96813; call 529-4773; fax 529-4750; or email

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