A property’s value is often related to the view it offers residents. A home facing an ocean or lake often sells at an exponentially higher rate than its neighbor across the street. This is due to the simple fact that residents reap the benefits of waking up to a luxurious coastal view every morning.
Unfortunately, pristine views are not guaranteed, and occasionally a neighbor can obstruct yours. Has this happened to you? If so, what can you do?
Relying on the guidance of attorneys Emily Doskow and Lina Guillan in their book Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries, and Noise, let’s explore how you can handle such a situation.
The Downside: You Have No Right to a View
According to Doskow and Guillan, “In our country, there is no right to light, air, or view, unless it has been granted in writing by a law (usually local) or subdivision rule. The exception to this general rule is that someone may not deliberately and maliciously block another’s view.”
In California, this general rule holds true as well. However, if homeowners want to fully understand their rights, they should consult with their local city ordinance. In some cases, ordinances protect the views of homeowners, especially in cases where the home overlooks the ocean or another desirable vista.
What view protections do you have as a homeowner?
As mentioned, some city ordinances can protect a homeowner’s view. However, the laws are never black and white. Instead, an ordinance simply allows the homeowner to bring a case to court. The ultimate decision on how to proceed, however, depends on the judge assigned to the case.
Subdivision Rules that Protect Views
You can check your home’s deed if you live in a subdivision or planned development. Look for the term “restrictive deed covenants” – they are written regulations that can protect your view as a homeowner.
There is no general rule for these types of communities. Instead, homeowners need to review their Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs) to determine what their rights are to their view, and what actions can be taken in the case of a disrupted view.
Check with the Homeowners Association
Most homeowners’ associations (HOAs) have a designated person or team to assist with violations. If a homeowner is protected under the HOA, these parties might be able to assist with legal proceedings in the case of non-compliance. Again, you should check with your HOA to determine your rights and the next steps to take.
If you are not protected under the city or your HOA, don’t be afraid to get creative in identifying a plan of action. Numerous laws can help you protect your view. Here are some to consult for further assistance:
- Fence height limits. Most communities have restrictions regarding fences, related to both their height and location. Fence height restrictions can apply to both natural and installed fences (e.g., wooden fences or hedges).
- Tree laws. Most cities and states have specific laws related to trees. They can include restrictions related to tree height, type, or location, to name a few.
- Zoning laws. Zoning laws divide cities into different areas according to use, and each zone has different laws regarding property layouts. Numerous aspects of zoning laws can help homeowners who are having difficulty with a neighboring obstruction of their view. Here are common aspects to consider when determining whether you are protected:
- Setbacks – the distance that must be left between the street and the structure or between the side and back of structures and the boundary line
- Structure occupancy limits – how much of a lot can be occupied by a structure
If you want to dig a little further, review the following as well:
- Tree laws: protected and prohibited species
- Zoning laws: style requirements and permit requirements
- Fences: setback rules
What should you do to get your view back?
As with any neighborly dispute, it is best to take certain actions before running straight to the courthouse. Most problems between neighbors can be easily and reasonably resolved, and suing someone should be a last resort. Moving immediately to sue can cause more harm than good. Therefore, Doskow and Guillan recommend taking the following steps to proceed with a view obstruction:
- Notify your neighbor of the problem. If you have a legal right to your view, via a city ordinance or CC&R, be sure to inform them of this as well. You want to present all of the facts before assuming they will not work with you.
- If you and the neighbor cannot come to an agreement, suggest using a mediator.
- If mediation fails, agree to abide by the decision of an arbitrator.
- Check to see if you can appear before the city tree commission.
- If nothing works, file an official complaint with the city.
Suing Your Neighbor
The last action anyone wants to take is to sue their neighbor, but, occasionally, it’s necessary. Typically, these suits are filed in small claims court, and you must rely on the expertise of a judge to make the final decision. The judge rules as to whether the neighbor should adjust their property (protecting your view), or if they have the right to keep the property as-is. In some cases, a neighbor may also need to pay a fine to the complaining party.
Protect Yourself from Future Problems
Our hope is that you never have to encounter a view obstruction with your neighbor and that you are simply seeking information regarding a “what-if” scenario. If that’s the case, here are a few tips to protect yourself moving forward:
- Identify your rights as a homeowner. It is best to do this before you purchase your home, especially if the view is critical.
- Get to know your neighbors! The best way to avoid neighborhood disputes is to engage with and be friendly toward your neighbors. Then, if a problem presents itself in the future, you have little or no problem resolving the issue.