There are often questions about who is responsible when storm-damaged trees end up on a neighbor’s property. UF IFAS Escambia County Extension discusses a few common situations using legal interpretations from the UF publication HANDBOOK OF FLORIDA FENCE AND PROPERTY LAW: TREES AND LANDOWNER RESPONSIBILITY.
Lately, to survive in Panhandle landscapes, plants must be able to tolerate extremes. Summertime temperatures over 100 degrees F, hurricane force winds up to 150 mph, deluges of 1’ of rain in a single day, spring and fall month-long droughts, and the wild winter weather swings we’re experiencing right now. That’s quite a tall order for most plants to bear, however one of our best native trees handles all of the above conditions with relative ease, the stately Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). Though Bald Cypress primarily inhabits flatwood “dome” swamps and areas along the periodically flooded edges of waterways and other wetlands and most folks think of it as just “water tree”, the species is more than capable of handling anything Florida’s climate can throw at it, including thriving in home landscapes.
Bald Cypress in mid-January. Notice the excellent branching structure and the buttressed lower trunk. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
While there are lots of pretty trees in the Panhandle’s natural areas, not many of them possess the longevity, adaptability and well-behaved nature that makes Bald Cypress a great landscape tree. Bald Cypress are capable of living for hundreds of years and grow steadily to a normal landscape height of 50-60’, truly perfect for a specimen shade tree. The species also possesses a strong, wide spreading root system and a special above ground root adaptation, known colloquially as “knees”, that enable Cypress to reach deep to outlast droughts, grow unfazed even when the water rises, inhabit many different soil types, and resist hurricane force winds. While some homeowners object to the presence of Cypress knees in their yard, as the above ground structures can damage mower blades and make for uneven terrain, I’ve found an easy solution is to simply keep the area under the tree’s canopy mulched and forgo mowing there altogether. It looks nice and means less grass to cut!
Bald Cypress isn’t just a big, tough, adaptable tree, it’s also gorgeous. The bright green, finely cut, featherlike leaves give the trees an airy appearance in the spring and summer, nicely offsetting common coarse textured yard trees like Magnolia, Sycamore, Red Maple, and others. However, it is in the fall and winter when Bald Cypress really shines. Though Florida is not known for its fall foliage, Cypress is a notable exception! When the weather gets cool, Bald Cypress leaves transition from green to a yellowish orange before finally arriving at a beautifully unique, rusty, orange-brown color. There isn’t another species out there with a similar show. The foliage holds deep into winter before finally falling to reveal the attractive branching structure, sweeping buttressed lower trunk, and peely gray bark underneath, completing the four-season show.
Bald Cypress foliage on December 31, 2020. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
In addition to being a near perfect landscape tree, Bald Cypress embodies much of what folks admire about life in the South, living the slow life near the water and enduring everything that’s thrown at it with grace and strength. Other than possibly the Live Oak, Bald Cypress is the tree that comes to mind first when I think about the tree that most represents where we come from. From their majestic, buttressed trunks, to the Spanish Moss that hangs loose from their limbs, to the slow, dark water than meanders nearby, the species is iconically Southern. When looking for an impossibly tough, adaptable, and attractive tree, one could do a whole lot worse than Bald Cypress.
If you have any questions about Bald Cypress, other landscape tree options, or any horticultural topic, please reach out to your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Happy gardening!
Even healthy live oaks need maintenance and occasional trimming to stay safe. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
After storms, Extension agents are routinely asked about whose responsibility it is to maintain a tree along a property line. This becomes particularly important in a situation where a property owner’s tree or branch falls and causes damage to their neighbor’s home or possessions.
To clarify this often contentious issue, reference to legal experts is necessary. In a series of publications called “The Handbook of Florida Fence and Property Law,” two attorneys and a University of Florida law student explain several statutes that give us direction. The section on “Trees and Landowner Responsibility” goes into further detail and cites case-law, but for ease of reading it is summarized below.
Situation 1: Removing a healthy tree on a shared property line.
If two neighbors share a tree on their property line and one of them wants to remove it, the adjoining landowner must give their permission. Removing trees can impact property value, heating/cooling bills, or aesthetic value. Without a neighbor’s consent, the landowner cutting down a tree can be legally liable for damages.
Hurricanes can have serious impacts on trees in their path. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Situation 2: Responsibility for overhanging branches and roots.
A big storm hits your neighborhood, with tons of rain, wind, and lightning. You wake up in the morning and see that a large branch fell from your neighbor’s tree and crushed your kids’ basketball goal. If branches from the neighbor’s tree were otherwise healthy, they are not responsible for any damages resulting from the tree. If it was dead, however, and their negligence contributed to the branch falling, they will be responsible for damages.
Keep in mind that if the neighbor’s tree/branches/roots are in good health but interfering with something in your yard, you may trim them at your own expense. The same goes for your tree hanging in their yard, so while it’s not required, it’s always good to have a conversation first to let them know your plans.
After Hurricane Ivan, this tree’s root system completely uprooted and destroyed and adjacent fence. Photo credit: Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension
Situation 3: Hurricane Sally blew your neighbor’s tree over and into your yard.
Just like the situation with branches and roots, the same principle goes for an entire tree falling on adjoining property—if the tree was alive, it’s the responsibility of the person whose yard it fell in. If it was dead when it fell, it’s the responsibility of the tree’s owner to pay for damages.
In a complicated situation involving property damage, the saying, “good fences make good neighbors” only goes so far. Be sure to note the health of your trees throughout the year and trim back dead or dying branches. If you see serious decay or have concerns about a tree’s health, contact your county Extension office or a certified arborist. Finally, if the circumstances aren’t easily determined, be sure to contact a licensed attorney and/or your insurance company for direction.
Stoke’s aster ‘Mel’s Blue’ 20 days after Hurricane Sally’s landfall. Notice how soil was washed away from root ball, all the leaves emerged post-hurricane. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF/IFAS Extension.
Hurricanes can wreak havoc in your landscape, but they can also reveal what plants are the toughest and most resilient. It’s a great learning opportunity.
A few weeks ago, Hurricane Sally came along and brought about 10 feet of surge and waves across my landscape and completely covered everything except the tallest trees for about 18 hours. (Fortunately, our house is on stilts and we did not have intrusion into our main living areas.)
As expected, the trees, including Dahoon Holly and Sweetbay Magnolia, took a beating but stayed intact. With their dense fibrous root system, most of the clumping native grasses also stayed put.
Perennial milkweed 3 weeks post-hurricane. New topsoil and compost now covers the rootball. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF/IFAS Extension.
The most surprising plant species that survived were about a dozen Stoke’s aster and 3 perennial milkweed. 4-5 inches of soil all around them was washed away, most of the roots were exposed, and the leaves were stripped or dead. The other perennials that had lived nearby were all washed away. To my surprise, within about 10 days after the storm, these two plant species started poking up new stems and leaves.
Here’s a list of some of the plants either in my yard or in the neighborhood that survived Hurricane Sally’s storm surge and may be suitable to add to your coastal landscape:
- Dahoon holly, Ilex cassine
- Muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris
- Dwarf Fakahatchee grass, Tripsacum floridanum
- Perennial milkweed, Asclepias perennis
- Stoke’s aster, Stokesia laevis, specifically the cultivars ‘Mel’s Blue’ and ‘Divinity’
- Bottlebrush, Callistemon citrinus
- Gardenia, Gardenia jasminoides
- Bougainvillea, Bougainvillea spp.
- Flax Lily, Dianella tasmanica
- Crapemyrtle, Lagerstroemia spp.
- Cabbage palm, Sabal palmetto
- Canary Island date palm, Phoenix canariensis
- Sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana
- Augustinegrass, Stenotaphrum secundatum
- And, unfortunately, the rhizomes of the invasive torpedograss also survived.
For more information on salt tolerant and hurricane resistant plants, see:
UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions: Coastal Landscapes
UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions: Salt-tolerant Lawngrasses
UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions: Trees That Can Withstand Hurricanes
Utility tree trimming truck
With hurricane season upon us, evidence of preparation is all around us. Tree trimmers, contracted by the local electrical utility companies, have been removing trees, branches and other vegetation that is “too close” to power lines. Many homeowners are concerned over the practice.
In order to prevent power outages, the federally approved Vegetation Management Reliability Standard, FAC-033-2, requires utilities to manage vegetation growth along the path of power lines to prevent contact. A minimum clearance of fourteen (14) feet between trees and transmission lines in the right-of-way must be maintained at all times in order to achieve service reliability and public safety.
By Florida Statute 163, an electric utility is granted easement or right-of-way on private property in order to build and maintain electric power lines. Vegetation maintenance allows for the mowing of vegetation within the right-of-way, removal of trees or brush within the right-of-way and selective removal of tree branches that extend within the right-of-way by the electric utility personnel, licensed contractors or International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborists. The choice of how to trim trees and manage vegetation growth near a power line (e.g. pruning, herbicides, or tree removal) is primarily made by the electric utility, subject to state and local requirements and laws, applicable safety codes, and any limitations or obligations specified in right-of-way agreements. An individual may contact the utility company to obtain a copy of the right-of-way agreement for their property.
Over-pruned trees along power line
Sometimes, it appears to some that excessive vegetation has been removed. But, remember the utility companies are required to maintain the appropriate clearance “at all times.” For example, in the summer, power lines sag as they expand from rising air temperatures and heavy use. Also, wind and future growth must be taken into account when determining where to prune. Electric utilities usually prune or remove vegetation to a distance greater than the minimum clearances to account for all these factors. However, in many instances, removal of the tree would be more aesthetically pleasing and could avoid leaving a hazardous tree in the landscape. But, that is not part of their contract. That decision must be made by the property owner.
Tree trimming around power lines may seem like a local issue, but vegetation growth also affects interstate transmission lines. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that electric utility service interruptions cost businesses and communities tens of billions of dollars annually. Tree contact with transmission lines was the leading cause of the August 2003 blackout that affected 50 million people in the Northeastern United States and Canada. In fact, that particular blackout prompted Congress to pass the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to establish the Vegetation Management Reliability Standard.
Should we have a storm that impacts Northwest Florida, remember that the clearing of trees and branches provides faster access for first responders, line repair crews, and other emergency service personnel. So, as you watch the preparation work being done, think about where you will be planting a tree so that it can reach full maturity without threatening power lines, therefore, not requiring “ugly pruning!”
Spacing between trees and power lines
The urban forest is much different from a natural forest. Trees often develop a form that is more susceptible to breakage when grown in developed commercial and residential environments. As a result, trees need preventive pruning to develop strong structure. Research and observation show that well pruned trees can create a more wind resistant urban forest.
Pruning to create stronger tree structure is an ongoing process. To minimize the likelihood of tree damage it is necessary to reduce the length of limbs with a weak attachment to the trunk and to balance the canopy by reducing the length of limbs on the side where weight is concentrated. Do not remove interior branches, as this concentrates foliage at the tips of branches and causes them to break in strong winds.
Limbs that are more than ½ the diameter of the trunk and multiple trunks of similar size must be reduced in order to form strong branch unions and eliminate co-dominant leaders. A reduction cut is pruned back to a smaller lateral branch. Good pruning cuts avoid cutting into the collar. The collar is the swollen area at the base of the branch where it joins the trunk. The tissue is rich in energy reserves and chemicals that hinder the spread of decay.
Preventative pruning only applies to woody tree species. Palms need fronds to protect the bud and provide nutrients for growth. Arborists report that results from previous storms revealed that palms that had been “hurricane pruned” suffered more damage than those that were not pruned. Do not wait until the last minute to prepare your trees for hurricane season. Take action now. For more information on pruning visit: http://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/woody/pruning.shtml.
If you want professional help evaluating your trees or performing the proper corrective actions, visit: https://www.treesaregood.org/findanarborist to locate a Certified Arborist working in your area.
The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season got off to an early start with some tropical storm activity before the season’s official June 1 start date. We live in a high wind climate. Even our thunderstorms can produce fifty-plus mile per hour winds.
Storm damaged sweetgum tree. Photo credit: Larry Williams
Preventive tree maintenance is key to preparing for storms and high winds.
Falling trees and flying landscape debris during a storm can cause damage. Evaluate your landscape for potential tree hazards. Pruning or removing trees once a hurricane watch has been announced is risky and tree trimming debris left along the street is hazardous.
Now is a good time to remove dead or dying trees, prune decayed or dead branches and stake newly planted trees. Also inspect your trees for signs of disease or insect infestation that may further weaken them.
Professional help sometimes is your best option when dealing with larger jobs. Property damage could be reduced by having a professional arborist evaluate unhealthy, injured or questionable trees to assess risk and treat problems.
Hiring a certified arborist can be a worthwhile investment. To find a certified arborist in your area, contact the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) at 888-472-8733 or at www.isa-arbor.com. You also may contact the Florida ISA Chapter at 941-342-0153 or at www.floridaisa.org.
Consider removing trees that have low wind resistance, are at the end of their life span or that have the potential to endanger lives or property.
Some tree species with the lowest wind resistance include pecan, tulip poplar, cherry laurel, Bradford pear, southern red oak, laurel oak, water oak, Chinese tallow, Chinese elm, southern red cedar, Leyland cypress, sand pine and spruce pine.
Broken pine from hurricane. Photo credit: Larry Williams
Pine species vary in their wind resistance, usually with longleaf and slash pines showing better survival rates than loblolly and sand pine. However, when pines become large, they may cause a lot of damage if located close to homes or other valuable structures. As a result, large pines are classified as having medium to poor wind-resistance. For this reason, it’s best to plant pines away from structures in more open areas.
Before and after a storm, tree removal requires considerable skill. A felled tree can cause damage to the home and/or property. Before having any tree work done, always make sure you are dealing with a tree service that is licensed, insured and experienced.
More information on tree storm damage prevention and treatment is available online at http://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/woody/stormy.shtml or from the UF/IFAS Extension Office in your County.