Neighbors Gone Wild Over Spite Fence

Sure the neighbors can sometimes be annoying. They play Yanni through the outdoor speakers on the weekends. Where did they get that odd pink and yellow sculpture in the back yard? It could get your blood boiling. You might have even hurled a few strong words at the neighbor while taking out the trash (while the neighbor leaves his trash cans to sit out on the street all week! Unbelievable!)

You might have thought about taking matters into you own hands. Nothing physical or violent, of course. You might have decided to “go green” and plant a huge wall of trees and shrubs along the property line just to annoy them and maybe block that nice canyon view. That would get ‘em. While it seems innocuous (and might perhaps help the environment), a recent legal opinion from the California Court of Appeal in Vanderpol v. Starr, No. D056599 (Cal. Ct. App. Apr. 15, 2011) shed some light on one of the more unusual legal outgrowths of un-neighborly relations: “spite fences.”

If you had decided to plant a row of tall trees, bushes or other plants just to raise the hair on the backs of your neighbors, you might have erected a “spite fence,” which are illegal under California law and might allow the injured neighbor to damages as a result of this “spite fence.”

If you show a cognizable injury in addition to the other basic “spite fence” requirements under the law, you can, a court could award damages. That could be one costly Azalea bush.

Here’s why. Our California legislature nearly 60 years ago put on the books a law against “spite fences” between warring neighbors:

Any fence or other structure in the nature of a fence unnecessarily exceeding 10 feet in height maliciously erected or maintained for the purpose of annoying the owner or occupant of adjoining property is a private nuisance. Any owner or occupant of adjoining property injured either in his comfort or the enjoyment of his estate by such nuisance may enforce the remedies against its continuance prescribed in Title 3, Part 3, Division 4 of this code

Cal. Civ. Code § 841.4.

The Vanderpol case involved two neighbors who initially got along about the trimming of some eucalyptus trees bordering their adjoining properties in Carlsbad in San Diego County. The Vanderpols raised concerns that the Starrs’ trees were blocking the ocean view. The Starrs agreed to trim the trees at the Vanderpols’ expense. As time went on, the relationship, shall we say, went a bit sour. The Starrs, in turn, planted Cypress trees and various other plants along the property line with the Vanderpols that reached new heights and, in turn, block the Vanderpols’ ocean view.

The Vanderpols then sued for the lost value of their property without the ocean view under the “spite fence” statute and for damages for the leaves and debris from the Starrs’ trees as part of a general nuisance claim.

The appellate court noted that real property law coming out of the 1800s recognized that property owners’ rights to use their land are not limitless but that property owners are entitled to be free from unreasonable interference of light and air. (Vanderpol at *11.) Apparently, neighbors were testy even those golden, go-go days of early California statehood.
The court reviewed its nine-year-old opinion in Wilson v. Handey (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 1301, which found that trees and shrubs constitute a “structure in the nature of a fence” for the purposes of the application of the “spite fence” statute.

While the Vanderpols were unable to actually get damages due to omissions in the jury instructions governing their claims, the moral of this story is to play well with others. Even if you do something so seeming innocuous as plant a new wall of trees or shrubs along your property line, you could be on the hook for damages. It’s a good thing Charlie Sheen doesn’t live next door to his “Two and a Half Men” producers or Sheen would be hitting up the nursery.

If you find yourself in a dispute with your neighbors over property lines, trees, shrubs, or anything else, Montez Law can help you resolve the dispute before the temperature of the parties reaches the boiling point. And whatever you do, don’t just go and plant a bunch of tall plants just to spite the neighbors.

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