A view can often be the most valuable part of a piece of property. Water, mountains, even territorial views of foliage add a sense of wonder, serenity and enrichment to what we see when we look out our windows.
Therefore, any encroachment or threat to that highly prized view should be taken seriously. But what, if anything, can a homeowner do when someone — or something — threatens to take that view away?
It all depends on where you live and who has jurisdiction over your neighborhood. And it ranges from absolutely nothing to very specific rules.
One of the first view ordinances was the New York City 1916 Zoning Resolution, a measure adopted primarily to stop massive buildings from preventing light and air from reaching the streets below. Houston, meanwhile, is unique as the largest city in the country with no zoning ordinances! Can you say urban sprawl?
Then we have the suburbs, with manicured lawns, pampered shrubs and CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions) favored by new planned communities and homeowners associations. Here’s one interesting view dispute example to consider — involving a former Major League Baseball player who claimed the trees that belonged to his Presbyterian minister neighbor were blocking his view. Both parties evoked their Christian faith. But in the end, the decision came down to a ruling by the city’s Board of Adjustment, which cited the city’s tree ordinance in ruling in favor of John Olerudand his wife, Kelly.
When the Oleruds couldn’t persuade their neighbors Bruce and Linda Baker to remove two 50-foot trees, they took it up with the city of Clyde Hill, WA. Ultimately the city ruled that the Oleruds could pay the Bakers more than $60,000 to remove and replace the trees with shorter varieties. Citing their Christian faith — and the realization they would still be neighbors — the Oleruds also agreed to a pay a $25,000 “tithe” of the property value increase to a charity of their choice.
Of course, not all view disputes end this way. However, they certainly can have a lot of drama if both parties aren’t as amenable to a solution.
When considering whether your view has any protection, consider these questions:
- Do you and the neighbor who may be trying to block your view live in the same homeowners association — one that perhaps restricts how high trees and other structures can be?
- Does your property have a recorded right against the neighbor’s property that limits the height of trees and other structures on the neighbor’s property?
If the answer to both questions is “no,” you probably have no legal power to limit the height of trees on your neighbor’s property. In many states, for example, you have no inherent right to views or sunlight or similar properties.
Meanwhile, some cities and counties have ordinances regulating things such as fences and hedges. If your neighbor’s trees are being used as a fence or a hedge, their height may be subject to regulation.
A real estate attorney can review the history of your property to see whether there are restrictions if you and the neighbor are in the same homeowners association or whether your property has some recorded rights against the neighbor’s property.
If you don’t already have an established right to limit the height of the neighbor’s trees, you could always try to buy that right from the neighbor, as the Oleruds did. It’s also possible the neighbor wants to trim the trees to keep the view but does not have the money. Try offering to pay and see what happens.
What if a neighbor wants to build an addition to the home or a commercial building, which could block your view and degrade your property value?
Check for zoning restrictions or covenants. With help from a creative real estate attorney, you might also be able to argue easement rights to the open space above your neighbor’s home.
Neighbor disputes can quickly turn emotional, especially when the view you paid for and love is threatened. But these neighbors are yours to keep until someone moves. It’s best to find an amicable solution to keep your “home sweet home” a place you still want to return to every day.