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Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Basil

Upper West Side, Manhattan

Rooftop Plants
Oct. 25, 2018

A 120-unit co-op on the Upper West Side has a roof deck open to all residents. One of them has been growing a very large basil plant. When fellow shareholders began helping themselves to basil leaves, the plant owner put up a sign: “Do not cut, plant belongs to …,” with the apartment number listed. The protective owner of the basil plant has raised an interesting question: If the roof space is shared, shouldn’t the basil plant be shared, too? 

The answer is no, says the Ask Real Estate column in the New York Times. A shared roof is like a bike storage room. Just because you store your bike there doesn’t mean your neighbor can take it for a spin. A basil plant is no different from a bike. 

“If I had a sign on my bike saying, ‘Nobody touch my bike,’ there’s really nothing wrong with that,” says attorney Steven Sladkus, a partner at Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas. On the other hand, he adds, “You can’t just commandeer a common area.” A shareholder can’t put a sofa in the lobby just because the area is communal. And the sign on the basil plant is a reminder that the plant owner has usurped a part of the common area for personal use. A basic tenet of co-op living is that no one should get special treatment, and a lone plant occupying part of a common area for the sole benefit of one shareholder implies that someone is getting preferential treatment. Depending on the rules, the board could force the basil owner to remove the privileged plant. 

Or maybe there’s a better solution. Since the shareholders like basil enough to pinch leaves from the lone plant, maybe instead of getting rid of the plant the board should encourage shareholders to grow plants of their own. Edible rooftop gardens are increasingly popular in New York. The board could set aside a portion of the roof deck for shareholders to grow their own herbs and vegetables in pots or raised beds. 

The Do not cut sign will disappear from the basil plant. The next challenge will be making sure that people cultivate their own gardens – and leave their neighbors’ gardens alone.

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