Spiteful Neighbors

fence_78316352We all love a home with a view, and many are willing to pay dearly for it. But what happens when a neighbor spitefully builds a fence to block your view?

Neighbors often contest one another’s right to build improvements, including fences, that block or impair views, light, and air. This is especially true in densely developed urban areas and in communities along the coast, in the mountains, or near open space.

Under California law, a structure can’t be enjoined as a nuisance just because it obstructs views from neighboring property or passage of light and air to adjoining premises. But if the offending structure is a “spite fence,” there may be a cause of action. A fence that’s built to vex or annoy a neighbor or to obstruct a view is a spite fence, and it may be challenged as a private nuisance.

California’s so-called spite fence law (CC §841.4) defines a spite fence as a fence or a structure in the nature of a fence that

  1. unnecessarily exceeds 10 feet in height, and
  2. was erected maliciously to annoy an adjoining property owner or occupant.

In appropriate circumstances, a row of trees planted parallel to a property line can be a spite fence.

The owner or occupant of neighboring property who is injured in the comfort or enjoyment of his or her property by a spite fence may enforce the remedies prescribed in CC §§3501-3503 (the private nuisance statutes), including

  • a civil action, in which damages and injunctive relief may be sought, or
  • abatement, which allows a person injured by a private nuisance to remove or, if necessary, destroy the thing that constitutes the nuisance, without breaching the peace or doing unnecessary injury.

Given the atmosphere of hostility that usually accompanies a spite fence, and the fact that the parties will continue to live in close proximity, always look for ways to settle the issue short of a lawsuit. And definitely don’t let your client go rogue: abatement by self-help without court sanction will usually not be an appropriate remedy and can even result in criminal penalties.

For everything you need to know about spite fences and non-boundary fences generally, turn to CEB’s Neighbor Disputes: Law and Litigation, chap 5 and the related program Neighbor Disputes: Access, Crime, Trees, and More!, available On Demand. Issues around neighboring property rights are also covered in CEB’s California Easements and Boundaries: Law and Litigation, chap 8 and the CEB program Easement and Boundary Disputes, available On Demand.

Related CEB blog posts:

© The Regents of the University of California, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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