BLOCKING VIEWS; SPITE FENCES

Many homeowners in California are very concerned about the esthetics of their properties. It can add tremendously to the market value of a house that it has a good view of the ocean, mountains or other beautiful views. Since views are so valuable, one might think that legal action could be taken by a property owner, if an adjoining landowner built a structure, which blocked a property’s views or access to air and sunlight.

While one might expect this to be the law, it is not. “As a general rule, a landowner has no natural right to air, light or an unobstructed view and the law is reluctant to imply such a right.” Pacifica Homeowners’ Association v. Wesley Palms Retirement Community (1986) 178 Cal. App. 3d 1147, 1152. The law was different in medieval England, where the doctrine of “ancient lights” protected a landowner’s access to light and air. That old rule was generally repudiated in America in the late 19th and early 20th century. “Such a doctrine was ill-suited to conditions existing in the early part of this century in a new and rapidly growing country. At that time society had a significant interest in encouraging unrestricted land development. Moreover a landowner’s rights to use his land were virtually unlimited; it was thought that he owned to the center of the earth and up to the heavens. In contrast, light had little social importance beyond its value for aesthetic enjoyment or illumination.” Sher v. Leiderman (1986) 181 Cal. App. 3d 867, 876.

As an example of the general rule, in Oliver v. AT&T Wireless Services (1999) 76 Cal. App. 4th 521, a landowner sued over the construction of 130 foot tall cellular telephone towers next door. The Court of Appeal discussed a number of possible legal theories. It concluded that, in general, a landowner has no right to an unobstructed view or to block the building of structures just because they are ugly.

There are at least three exceptions to the general rule that a landowner has no right to views, sunlight or air. First, landowners may have easements (express or implied) to views, air or sunlight. Second, local ordinances may outlaw the sort of structures, which would block views or otherwise prevent unsightly building. As a practical matter, if you wish to protect your views or other aesthetics of your property, the most effective way to do so ordinarily is through seeking to prevent the offending structure from being approved for construction by the local municipal authorities.

The third exception to this general rule is Civil Code 841.1, which prohibits spite fences. A “spite fence” is a fence or fence-like structure more than 10 feet tall, which is either constructed or maintained maliciously and for the purpose of annoying the owner or occupant of an adjoining property. A spite fence is a private nuisance. The offended party may sue to have it removed and for damages.

Some of the courts have interpreted the “spite fence” statute rather broadly. Wilson v. Handley (2002) 97 Cal. App. 4th 1301, held that a row of trees, planted in such a way that they blocked one person’s view of Mt. Shasta, could be a “spite fence” for purposes of the statute.

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