Imagine for a moment that you own your “dream home,” with a view overlooking the Pacific Ocean here in California. You enjoy sitting on your deck daily with your morning coffee taking in the beautiful panorama. All is well for many years, but gradually the trees located just over the boundary of your neighbor’s property grow higher and higher, until they become tall enough to block your beautiful view. You plead with your neighbor to trim his trees, or to allow you to trim them, but your neighbor refuses, for his own undisclosed “personal reasons.”
The loss of the view from your home is not only frustrating and disappointing, the loss of this amenity is also causing a substantial reduction is the fair market value of your home. It seems unfair to you that your neighbor should be allowed to cause you such frustration and economic loss without even offering a good reason. Is there any legal action you can take to force your neighbor to trim or remove the offending trees?
With some exceptions, the answer in California is “no”. The California Supreme Court spoke on this subject in the late 19th century, and established the doctrine in California that one’s ownership of land does not imply a right to force owners of neighboring land to refrain from obstructing the view from the land or the light and air reaching the land.1
Thus, in general, your neighbor has no responsibility to prevent his trees from growing so high that they interfere with the view from your home, and you cannot successfully take your neighbor to court to force him to trim is trees.
In establishing this doctrine, the California court was actually departing from the English common law, from which much of American law is derived. The California court’s reasons for departing from the English rule were based the court’s perception of the differences that then existed between England and California. California at that time was experiencing a great expansion in the development of its land, and the court did not want to establish a doctrine that would interfere with this economic expansion and development. The California court saw that allowing landowners to prevent their neighbors from building structures, or allowing natural conditions to develop, which blocked the first landowner’s views would tend to hamper the future development of land. The court considered this to be a poor public policy. In California therefore, the general rule is that an “easement” for the passage of light, air and views can only be created through the agreement of the landowners involved, and will not be imposed by the courts.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. A few cities in California have established “view protection ordinances.” For example, the town of Tiburon has passed an ordinance which prohibits a possessor of land from planting or maintaining any tree or plant that “unreasonably” obstructs the view from, or sunlight reaching “any active area” of any other parcel of real property within the town.2 The ordinance provides for efforts at mediation in order to resolve such disputes, but ultimately the offending trees can be declared a public nuisance and the landowner can be ordered to remove the obstruction. This ordinance was challenged as being unconstitutional as an unreasonable use of the government’s “police power” and as being a violation of the doctrine mentioned above regarding easements for light, air and views, but these challenges were rejected by the California courts.3
The City of Rancho Palos Verdes adopted a similar ordinance, which allows a landowner whose view has been blocked by the growth of trees to apply for a “view restoration permit” from the city, and after a public hearing process, to ultimately obtain, at the landowner’s own expense, the right to trim or remove offending trees. This ordinance has also been upheld by the courts, against a challenge that it amounted to an unconstitutional “taking” of the neighboring owner’s property rights without compensation.4 However, very few municipalities in California have adopted such ordinances.
Covenants, conditions and restrictions (“CC&Rs”) governing the use of land in common interest developments (for example, subdivision developments that have established homeowners associations, or condominium complexes) provide another possible source for relief for the landowner who has been deprived of his views by the growth of a neighbor’s vegetation. California law allows a common interest development to restrict the use of property within the development as long as such restriction is reasonable.5 Such restrictions on the growth of trees which block neighbors views do exist in CC&Rs in some California common interest developments and have been successfully enforced. However, it appears that such provisions are relatively rare. It is possible for a landowner within a common interest development to seek an amendment of the CC&Rs to add such a view restriction, but such a landowner will have to follow the procedures set forth in the CC&Rs regarding amendments, and convince the governing board and perhaps a majority of the landowners that such an amendment should be made.
Few other possibilities remain. The California Civil Code prohibits the erection of “spite fences” or walls 10 feet high or higher if “maliciously erected or maintained for the purpose of annoying a neighbor.”6 Such ordinances are constitutional7 but they do not expressly apply to the growth of trees, and there would be great difficulty in proving the necessary element of malice where a neighbor has simply allowed trees to grow.
Finally, the California Civil Code establishes the concept of a “solar easement,” which is defined as the right of receiving sunlight across real property of another for any solar energy system.8 This statute sets forth the requirements for what an agreement establishing such a solar easement must state, including the “restrictions placed upon vegetation, structures, and other objects that would impair or obstruct the passage of sunlight through the easement.” However, it is clear that such solar easements can only be established by agreement between the neighboring landholders. There is no provision allowing the establishment of such an easement without the consent of those concerned.
1 See Kennedy v. Burnap (1898) 120 Cal. 488; Western Granite & Marble Co. v. Knickerbocker (1894) 103 Cal. 111.
2 Chapter 15, Tiburon Municipal Code.
3 Kucera v. Lizza (1997) 59 Cal.App.4th 1141
4 Echevarrieta v. City of Rancho Palos Verdes (2001) 86 Cal.App.4th 472
5 California Civil Code §1354
6 California Civil Code §841.4
7 Wilson v. Handley (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 1301
8 California Civil Code §801.5