What is an Easement?

Easements in Pennsylvania

An easement is a limited right to use the property of another. Common easements include driveways, private roads, and utility rights-of-way for electric, water or communication lines. Most easements are contained in deeds; some can arise simply due to the passage of time. A “prescriptive” easement arises when, for twenty-one consecutive years, one land-owner uses the land of another in an “open, notorious and uninterrupted” manner. If your neighbors run their cable line across your property, after twenty-one uninterrupted years, they have established the right to do so. If you live on a private road and let it become a short-cut for a neighbor who isn’t entitled to use the road, after twenty-one years, she will be entitled.

A Pennsylvania Case

In a significant Pennsylvania easement case, a Pennsylvania homeowner tried to stop his neighbor from developing property. The homeowner claimed that because the roots and branches of his trees would be disturbed by the neighbor’s development plans, the development must be halted by the court. Arguing that twenty-one years of uninterrupted growth of roots and branches had created a prescriptive easement for the continued growth of the trees, the homeowner expected that his neighbor’s rights to develop his property should be limited. Any development that undermined the trees, damaged their roots or required the removal of branches was unfair, the homeowner insisted, since the roots and branches of his trees had encroached on the neighbor’s land for more than twenty-one years. Now, the homeowner claimed, he had an absolute right to have the health, location and condition of his trees remain unchanged since a twenty-one year encroachment on his neighbor’s land had given him the right to permit his trees to continue the encroachment.

Noting that Pennsylvania’s streets, yards, sidewalks and neighborhoods are full of unruly trees whose branches and roots cross property lines heedlessly, the Pennsylvania Superior Court declined to extend the law of prescriptive easements to tree growth. The Court wisely concluded: “The philosophy of the law is simply that whenever neighbors cannot agree, the law will protect each owners rights insofar as that is possible. Any other result would cause landowners to seek self-help or to litigate each time a piece of vegetation starts to overhang their property for fear of losing the use or partial use of their property as the vegetation grows.” The encroachment of trees or vegetation from one person’s land to another’s land doesn’t create any permanent right to continue the encroachment in the future.

Tree Branches & Neighboring Properties

If tree branches from neighboring properties overhang your property, you are entitled to “compel” their removal. Overhanging tree branches from adjacent property are legally considered a trespass. It is wisest to speak to the tree owner first and resolve the problem. But if overhanging tree branches pose a danger to you or your property you are entitled to remove them as long as you can do so without trespassing on your neighbor’s property. If the problem can’t be resolved by agreement or your safe removal of the objectionable growth, the courts will compel a landowner to trim or remove trees which encroach on your land.