Contributing Writer: Doug Still, Consulting Arborist; Host and Producer, This Old Tree radio show and podcast; Providence, R.I. City Forester (2005 to 2022); Past President, Society of Municipal Arborists.

Good trees don’t always make good neighbors. We’d like to think so, but “boundary trees” located on or near property lines can cause conflict. While you love your old shade tree, your neighbor may dislike falling litter, a cracked driveway, or the risk posed by falling limbs. A tree’s roots and branches may extend far into adjacent yards in urban areas. Heated disagreements about how to manage the tree are common and often emotional. People have different ideas about what constitutes proper trimming, while some don’t think trees should be pruned at all. And oh yes — who’s going to pay for it?

No one enjoys suing a neighbor, but mature trees can be appraised at tens of thousands of dollars. When heels are dug in, litigation can feel like the only option to protect a tree, or force one to be removed if it threatens life and property. Court battles are expensive and time consuming. Winning is not assured, but hating your neighbor is likely. There is another way – arbor mediation.

Beloved oak tree threatened by installation of a neighbor’s driveway. Photo Doug Still

Neither side will get everything they want, but an agreement both can live with is possible.

Leaning boundary tree loved by its owner, but causing concern for the neighbor. Photo Doug Still

Mediation is an alternative dispute resolution process facilitated by an impartial mediator, preferably two co-mediators. It is a voluntary process, and private: many state court systems consider the content of mediation sessions to be entirely confidential should the dispute eventually land in court. But court battles will be decided by a judge based on the law. There is little room for negotiation or attention to solutions that consider the long-term health of trees. Settlements still involve lawyers and tough tactics. Mediation, on the other hand, puts control of the outcome back into the hands of both parties. Neither side will get everything they want, but an agreement both can live with is possible.

Consulting arborists often serve as expert witnesses in court cases that reach trial stage or settle through litigation. Additionally, some participate in mediation by representing the interests of one side or the other by providing arboricultural assessment and advice. In contrast, an “arbor mediator” is neutral, representing neither side, and is credentialed in the techniques of the mediation process through formal training. Arbor mediators will bring tree care or risk mitigation options to the table for the parties to consider based on sound arboricultural practices. But ultimately the parties arrive at their own agreement, assisted and drawn up by the mediators. This is a foundational principle of the mediation as a discipline.

Mediation can be a welcome, more civil option to help neighbors in conflict move on. Time, money, dignity, and trees can be saved. Arbor mediation helps preserve trees and relationships.