How Much is Your Tree House Worth?
By: Lori Einhorn
There’s not much worse than bad blood between neighbors. The best way to escalate an already negative situation? Take it to court. In the following cases neighbors go into legal battles over….a tree? A road? Yes. As absurd as it may be, a seemingly simplistic situation between neighbors turned sour post litigation. Try judging these court cases for yourself. See if you can guess the final judgment after hearing the case. You may be surprised by the answers.
Case 1: Gatchett Lane
35 years ago, the Gatchetts and their neighbors agreed to a 60-foot-wide private road and public utility easement between their properties. This land was called Gatchett Lane. Years later, the lots in the area were divided and sold. In 2002, a piece of the land was sold to Seth Barlow and he included in the Gatchett lane easement. One of Seth’s neighbors, a developer added three other roads to the neighborhood making Gatchett lane unnecessary for transportation purposes. The developer proposed building out the 5 lots left around Gatchett lane. Twenty-two neighbors agreed to give up their easement rights but Seth refused. Even after a $30,000 offer to abandon his easement, Seth stood his ground.
The developer decided to sue Seth in order to “quiet title to terminante Seth’s easement, or, in the alternative, to reduce its width from 60 feet to 15 feet.” The court ruled in favor of the developer stating that “Seth’s reasonable use requirements, both presently and in the future , did not encompass the full size and scope of Gatchett Lane, whereas reducing the strip of land would allow the developer to proceed with appropriate use of his property.” Seth proceeded to appeal the decision. If you were the appellate judge, what would you decide?
The decision was overturned and Seth won. Why? “Courts have no authority to partially or fully extinguish an otherwise valid easement.” The developer had argued that changed circumstances can terminate a granted easement. The court though, disagreed based on the premise that no other California case supports the concept. He also stated that it was in the public’s best use to turn the land into another part of the development. While true, the court pointed out that the developer put this upon himself with a poor design. He should have used Gatchett lane as a main road in the development and the entirety of the case could have been avoided.
Case 2: The Very Giving Tree
Between the yards of the Soneses and the Kallises was a shared 70-foot Aleppo pine tree. As the tree continued to grow, the Soneses feared that it would topple over so they cut it down. At that time, they believed that they owned the entire tree but after closer inspection the tree belonged to both families. The Kalises sued the Soneses for removing the tree. During the trial, the Kalises provided images of the tree shading their home and their children playing in the treehouse. They brought in an expert witness that stated, “the value of the tree using a ‘trunk formula method’ was $42,678, plus $11,080 for installation and aftercare costs. He also testified that to locate, transport, and install an identical tre would cost about a million dollars.”
The Kallises won the trial and were awarded a judgement of $107,256. This was calculated by estimating two times the tree’s value and costs asserted by the expert witness. In California, the law allows for monetary costs to be doubled in the case of injuring a tree. The Soneses appealed the court’s decision, stating that only half the tree was on the Kallises’ property. Because of this, they believed that the monetary judgement should be reduced based on the percentage of tree that was actually located on the lot. Do you think that the Kallises’ should receive a smaller financial compensation because only a portion of the tree was on their property?
The court decided against the Soneses’ appeal. They stated that “monetary damages awarded for tortious injury to property is generally ‘the amount which will compensate for all the detriment proximately caused thereby’.” Moreover, the emotional ties to the tree allowed for the court to increase the monetary award to the Kallises.