People adore their own trees but often vilify the trees of neighbors that block views, drop leaves or limbs, topple and smash cars, or buckle driveways with intrusive roots.
Conflicts over trees can rage months or years with great intensity. Sometimes the fight swirls around damage and liability. Other times, overgrown egos clash and trees become an excuse for battle.
Redwoods blocked Ellison’s view
Larry Ellison, founder and chairman of Oracle with 2017 net worth estimated at more than $60 billion, bought a 10,000-square-foot home in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. His neighbors, Jane and Bernard von Bothmer, had a pair of redwoods that grew to shield their privacy from Ellison’s frequent parties — and block Ellison’s view of the bay. The business titan tried to buy the von Bothmer home for $15 million; they said no. Eventually Ellison sued, demanding that the neighbors trim the redwoods.
With trial set for June 2011, the case settled and the von Bothmers agreed to trim trees. Then Ellison bought the house next door, 22 bedrooms for $40 million, further ensuring his view.
Sausalito attorney Barri Kaplan Bonapart represented Ellison and prevailed. “The neighbors pitched it as a David and Goliath case,” she said. “He had billions. They only had hundreds of millions,” she said.
“I was very pleased. Not only is he intelligent and interesting,” but Ellison tried to be considerate of his neighbors, she said, and “take the socially responsible approach,” not filing suit right away.
Bonapart started handling tree cases in the late 1980s, mostly in the Bay Area.
Battles never about trees
“It’s never about the trees,” Bonapart said. “It’s about getting to the emotional and psychological underpinnings that create disputes between people. Trees often serve as a lightning rod for those issues.” Wherever possible, she nudges tree-related disputes toward mediation, seeking opportunities to restore harmony.
When people go through personal struggles such as business failure, illness, job loss, divorce or death of a loved one, they feel loss of control.
“They try and exercise control and dominion over something else,” Bonapart said, especially their homes.
“I became hooked” on mediation as the best way to resolve skirmishes over trees, she said. “Slugging it out in the courtroom is one way. By the end of that process, everybody ends up bloodied. Even if you won, often it was a pyrrhic victory.”
When she coaches clients in mediation sessions, she often counsels them to first apologize for anything they may have done to offend the other party. An apology may soften the tone of the conflict and open a bridge to resolution. “Build a foundation upon which neighborly dialog can occur,” Bonapart said. “Whatever you say after that, they’re more likely to hear.”
Sometimes a neighbor opposes a remodeling project by the homeowner next door. If the project goes forward anyway, the neighbor who opposed may resurrect the conflict in a fight over trees. “It could be retaliatory,” Bonapart said. “Emotions run high in all these cases.”
If a neighbor’s trees appear to jeopardize health or safety, “that’s pretty emotional stuff,” she said.
Tree caused wrongful death
Cases involving serious damage wrought by trees may end in court. Bonapart handled one wrongful-death case that arose from a toppled tree. The confidential settlement was millions of dollars.