Connecticut is heavily forested and, at the same time, densely populated.
The 2020 Connecticut Forest Action Plan showed that 61 percent of the state is covered in trees, and it ranks fourth in the U.S. in number of people per square mile.
So people and trees live closely together.
The forest study revealed a problem – Connecticut’s trees are aging, and dying at a quick clip. They are under assault by the emerald ash borer and the gypsy moth. And they are battered by the effects of climate change, particularly drought and high winds.
So it’s no surprise that the state legislature is again considering a bill that would hold property owners responsible for damages when a tree or limb falls from their yard into a neighbor’s yard.
Now, property damage caused by a neighbor’s fallen tree is covered by homeowner’s insurance.
Bills that would shift those costs from insurers to property owners have been raised in just about every legislative session in the last decade. They all failed except for one that passed the House and Senate in 2014. But former Gov. Dannel Malloy said he feared that people would cut down healthy trees to avoid the possibility of future liability, and refused to sign the bill. It died by veto.
Now it’s back.
Senate Bill 1061, An Act Concerning a Property Owner’s Liability for the Expenses of Removing a Fallen Tree or Tree Limb, was introduced in the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, where it passed, 30-7. As of Friday, the bill was sitting on the Senate calendar awaiting action.
The Judiciary Committee raised the bill, according to the Connecticut General Assembly website, because “storms hit year after year with a significant amount of damage done to properties. Under current law, if a tree falls on your property, it is your responsibility to clean it up. This bill would make property owners liable for their trees that fall on adjoining properties.”
Under the bill, a property owner would be liable for the cost of removing a tree or limb that falls on an adjoining property under three conditions:
- If a licensed arborist inspected the tree and documented that it was diseased, decayed, or damaged and likely to fall within five years.
- If the neighbor notified the property owner about a damaged tree and asked that it be removed, pruned or sprayed.
- If the landowner failed to act within 90 days after receiving such notice, which would have to be sent by certified mail.
The property owner with a questioned tree would not be liable if an arborist deemed it to be healthy, or if it fell for some reason other than disease, damage or decay – such as fire, lightning, car crash “or other act of God.”
The bill would not require a property owner to allow an arborist to enter the property to inspect a tree, but the arborist still would have to make a determination about the tree.
Under the bill, an insurance company could deduct from a payment the amount the policyholder recovers under the bill, to the extent that amount would be a covered loss under the policy.
From where it sits now on the Senate calendar, the bill can be kicked back to another committee, or senators can act on it before the legislative session ends June 7.
It’s not known whether Gov. Ned Lamont, like Malloy, would veto it. Lamont has not weighed in, according to information from the General Assembly’s bill-tracking website.
Opponents of the bill testified during a March 3 public hearing that the measure arose out of Connecticut’s position as an insurance industry hub.
Environmental attorney Keith Ainsworth of New Haven, acting chair of the Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality, testified that the “proposed law will upend 300 years of legal precedent in Connecticut which holds that a property owner is not liable for trees which fall unless the owner takes some action to cause it to fall. The rule has always been that a tree which falls is considered a natural event. This is why homeowner’s insurance exists – to cover acts of God that cause damage.”
The bill, Ainsworth said, “is a favor to insurance companies at the expense of individual citizens.” It will allow property owners to pressure their neighbors to clear trees because they want a better view, or they want to reduce the volume of leaves to rake, to settle a score, or other reasons that have nothing to do with safety, Ainsworth testified.
The bill would “create opportunity for mischief (and) provide a windfall to insurance carriers,” Ainsworth said. “I believe the bill is motivated by the insurance industry’s desire to avoid coverage for trees.”
Mystic resident Jeri DeSantis testified about why she supports the bill. DeSantis described her attempts to prevent her property from being damaged by a neighbor’s dead and diseased ash trees.
DeSantis said she has spoken to her neighbor multiple times, and he “has replied that he isn’t liable for what trees fell or will fall.”
She and adjacent property owners “have so far cleaned up two 60-foot trees that fell on two separate occasions, had them cut up and hauled away. … Now a third tree … is poised to fall on my property,” DeSantis said. “It looks like I will have to pay to have this tree cut down and hauled away. The cost amounts to several hundred dollars for each tree.”
DeSantis said she supports the bill because it “holds property owners responsible for fallen trees and limbs. It puts the blame where it should be. It isn’t right for innocent homeowners to bear the brunt of tree removal expenses, or for negligent homeowners to avoid them.”
In Connecticut, a property owner may remove limbs from a neighbor’s tree if they hang over the property line.