Tree roots in sewer drains have legal rights

Tree roots in sewer drains are an issue we are confronted with on a weekly basis. They can be confronting for plumbers as we are frequently faced with situations where clients want us to give quasi-legal rulings on issues of non-compliance of tree roots in sewer drains where there is, in reality, no black or white answer. The reality is there are multiple opinions in multiple shades of grey.

perennial issue for all plumbers as long as I can remember is the issues created by trees and tree roots. Trees can do considerable damage to plumbing infrastructure especially to underground water pipes and drains. Often the damage has been slowly occurring over many years before you are affected.

A common issue we are confronted with, numerous times every month, is tree roots in sewer drains and stormwater drains.

A fact that some people fail to grasp is that tree roots don’t respect or understand property boundaries. Trees they just grow and their tree roots search for water and nutrients from the soil. Regrettably, your sewer drains are a great source of both water and nutrients for tree roots.

Tree Roots in Sewer Drains 3

The photo on the left is a perfect example of how far tree roots will infiltrate a drain.

These tree roots we removed from a stormwater drain had infiltrated 12 meters down the drain and were causing flooding to the property every time there was a rainfall event.

These tree roots came from multiple trees situated in multiple surrounding properties. The roots infiltrated the drain in three different locations where the pipe was cracked and broken. Broken pipes are how tree roots infiltrate a drain. Tree roots by themselves cannot break a pipe open.

Large trees are a source of neighbourhood disputes

The Gold Coast has in recent times allowed urban blocks to become smaller and smaller.  Over the years as the trees in landscaped urban blocks mature, problems begin to occur. Any large tree can become a real source of angst and stress. This results in trees becoming a source of disagreements between otherwise friendly neighbours with the most common disputes being:

  • Branches overhanging the boundary fence and pushing over dividing fences
  • Branches, fruit and leaf litter dropping into the neighbouring property
  • Roots causing damage to underground drains, water mains, electrical conduits and telecommunications conduits
  • Roots damaging fences, house foundations and concrete paths and driveways
  • Branches blocking sunlight for solar PV panels, solar hot water panels, windows, Foxtel microwave dishes and TV aerials

Issues with branches are clearly visible to everyone so they are generally much easier to resolve. In most instants, an amicable discussion with your neighbour can resolve most branch issues as there is a common interest.

Roots in sewer drains or stormwater drains are vastly different. These underground root infiltrations are neither visible nor easily traceable to their source. 

Tree roots in sewer drains & stormwater drains

When we find your drain blocked with tree roots there are often multiple types of roots inside the drain causing the blockage. Without an extensive horticultural investigation to determine the type of tree that the roots are from no one can ascertain which tree’s roots have infiltrated your drain and where the tree roots originate from.

Tree Roots in Sewer Drains 4

As you can see in the photo above where we have undertaken vacuum excavation of a drain the roots are everywhere around the sewer pipe. It is clearly visible there are multiple roots of varying sizes and tree types.

Contrary to multiple urban myths tree roots do not break drains whether the drain is installed in PVC pipe or earthenware pipe.

Yes, in old earthenware drains tree roots over time will infiltrate the drain around the rubber ring joints, but that is because of movement in the ground that enable the roots to very slowly infiltrate over a number of years.

With PVC drains it is impossible for tree roots to break open pipe or fittings. In every instant, I have ever seen the drain was broken usually on a bend or junction that allowed the roots to infiltrate the drain. In just about every instant we come across of broken PVC drains it is our opinion the drain was damaged during the initial installation of the drain at the time of construction.

It is almost impossible to prevent tree roots from entering a broken drain without repairing the drain. This is where we commonly see the problems originating with neighbour disputes. It is not unusual to have clients misinterpret what we inform them and attempt to put words in our mouth as to whom is responsible for firstly clearing the blocked drain and secondly repairing the damaged drain.

The law concerning tree roots in sewer drains

If you have no trees on your property and your neighbour has a fully landscaped garden full of trees, then yes it’s likely the neighbour is responsible.

Having been drawn into these arguments between neighbours on a number of occasions over the years I highly recommend that you to try to resolve the issue tactfully with your neighbour before things get out of hand. I can assure you this is always quicker, cheaper and a lot less stressful than taking legal action which will ultimately end up in mediation after spending a small fortune with a solicitor.

From the legal perspective, the Neighbourhood Disputes (Dividing Fences and Trees) Act 2011 is the legislation relating to trees. The legislation requires that you determine who has the responsibility for the tree. However, if the tree is on the boundary, then both parties will have responsibility equivalent to the amount of tree on each property.

Trees have legal rights

At all times you must be aware that you cannot take the law into your own hands where trees are concerned. You cannot remove a tree outside your property that you believe is damaging your property. Legally all you can do is remove overhanging branches up to the boundary.

If you back onto a City of Gold Coast public park or reserve then you must contact the council about the problems as many trees in public parks are protected.

Prior to planting any large trees in your property, you should consider the height they will grow to when they are mature and where their roots can possibly spread. Similarly assessing neighbouring trees with your neighbour now may prevent property damage and large bills in the future.

Ultimately your house is your major asset and it is in your interests to protect your asset but remember trees have rights to, and just cannot be chopped down for no reason if they are not on your property.

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