Row of Trees Can Be “A Structure in the Nature of A Fence,” But the Owners of Neighboring Properties Must Show an Injury for “Spite Fence” Law to Apply

In Vanderpol v. Starr, ( — Cal.Rptr.3d —-, Cal.App. 4 Dist., May 2, 2011), a California court of appeal considered a dispute between neighboring property owners over a row of trees that one property owner grew along the boundary between their properties blocking the other property owner’s ocean view. The court ruled that under California’s “Spite Fence” law, Civil Code Section 841.14, a row of trees could act as a fence-like structure and be subject to the law. However, the court also ruled that absent a demonstration of injury to their “comfort and enjoyment,” neighboring property owners are not entitled to damages or injunctive relief under the law.

Facts

Fred and Indra Starr and Eugene and Jenny Vanderpol owned homes on adjacent lots in Carlsbad. The lots shared a common boundary along their back yards. Both properties had ocean views, with the Starrs’ home downhill from and in front of the Vanderpols’ home, relative to the ocean. Along the back boundary of the Starrs’ property was a row of eucalyptus trees, which, if allowed to grow tall enough, would obstruct the Vanderpols’ ocean view.

For several years, the Starrs and Vanderpols worked cooperatively to ensure the trees were trimmed in a manner that did not obstruct the Vanderpols’ view. Eventually they began to argue about the extent and frequency of the trimming. The Starrs then began planting additional trees, stating they were seeking to provide greater privacy on their property. The Vanderpols’ attorney notified the Starrs that their trees must be trimmed because they were obstructing the view and damaging the value of the Vanderpols’ property. The Starrs refused and the Vanderpols sued.

A jury found that the Starrs were “maliciously maintaining trees” for the dominant purpose of annoying the Vanderpols, and that the Starrs’ conduct was a “substantial factor” in causing harm to the Vanderpols. The jury awarded the Vanderpols $57,000 for “lost value of property,” and the court enjoined the Starrs from maintaining their trees at a height greater than 15 feet, 9 inches. However, the court also removed the damages awarded by the jury because with the trees trimmed as required by the injunction, there would no damage to the value of the Vanderpols’ property.

The Starrs appealed the injunction, saying the Vanderpols had failed to prove they sustained a legally cognizable injury, while the Vanderpols contended that the jury’s decisions established a “nuisance per se” that entitled them to the damages and injunctive relief.

Decision

First, the court reviewed the language of Section 841.14, referred to as the Spite Fence law: “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 occupant or owner of adjoining property is a private nuisance.” Further, any owner or occupant “injured either in his comfort or enjoyment of his estate by such nuisance,” may seek relief under the law.

The court cited Wilson v. Handley (2002) 97 Ca,.App.4th 1301, which concluded that “a row of trees planted on or near the boundary line between adjoining parcels of land can be a ‘structure in the nature of a fence’ for the purposes of Section 841.14. In that decision, the Wilson court broadly defined the word “structure” as “something arranged in a definite pattern of organization,” a definition that includes a row of trees planted in a specific pattern, the court found. Thus, the court determined the Starrs’ trees met the definition of “structure in the nature of a fence” for the purposes of the law.

However, Section 841.14 requires more and the jury here was never asked to determine if the Vanderpols had sustained “injury” in their “comfort or enjoyment” of their property by such nuisance. The jury found “lost value of property,” but not a finding of lost “comfort or enjoyment of their property,” as required by the plain language of the statute. The court ruled that because the jury was never asked to decide that question, the verdict was defective on its face.

The court reversed the judgment and remanded the matter for a new trial.

Questions

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