As discussed in our article on Nuisance on the Land, property owners in California are given the right to commence legal action if neighboring or nearby landowners engage in activities that interfere unreasonably with the use and enjoyment of the land. Typically, inappropriate or noisy activity or noxious smells can lead to such claims and reference is made to the article above.
Another annoying event can occur if an adjoining or nearby landowner engages in construction or landscaping that blocks the views that may otherwise be available from the property. In a day when views can double the value of property, such construction can definitely adversely alter property values.
However, as discussed below, the obstruction of views or light has expressly been barred as appropriate claims for nuisance in California. This article discusses the law and appropriate relief that may otherwise be available for property owners.
California Courts have uniformly held that a structure cannot be complained of as a nuisance merely because it obstructs the view from neighboring property.
The matter is succinctly stated in Vol. 2, Neil M. Levy, et. al. California Torts § 17.05 (d) (Esthetic Preferences Not Protected): “Accordingly, a property owner may erect a structure on his or her land, and the law will not pronounce it a nuisance merely because it obstructs the passage of light or air to the adjoining owner’s building or obstructs the view.” (emphasis added).
The leading case is Venuto v Owens-Corning ((First Dist. 1971) 22 Cal. App. 3d 116) in which two groups of plaintiffs sued Owens-Corning alleging that their operations in Santa Clara County so polluted the air as to constitute a nuisance. The first group claimed personal injury under a nuisance theory. These injury claims are not relevant to this case and were treated separately by the appellate court. However, the second “group” of plaintiffs claimed that the pollution obscured the view from a long term office rental. This plaintiff alleged that he had specifically selected the tenancy because of its attractive view of the mountains and that he had paid a premium for the view. He alleged that the pollution obscured his view of the mountains and that Owens-Corning had interfered with the “comfortable enjoyment” of the property (to use the language of the statute, CC§3479). The Court, Justice Molinari presiding, analyzed the case as follows:
“Directing our attention to the plaintiff who claims injury by reason of the alleged obstruction to his view, we apprehend that, since the complaint alleges that he is a lessee under a long term lease of premises whose view is allegedly obstructed by defendant's operations, a sufficient property right has been alleged to support an action based on a private nuisance under principles hereinbefore articulated. Our inquiry, then, is whether an interference consisting of an obstruction to view is encompassed within the definition of a nuisance.
As already observed, Civil Code section 3479, in defining a nuisance, states, in part, that “Anything which is ... an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property, ... is a nuisance.” Prosser, in discussing private nuisance, states that “So long as the interference is substantial and unreasonable, and such as would be offensive or inconvenient to the normal person, virtually any disturbance of the enjoyment of the property may amount to a nuisance.” (Prosser on Torts (3d ed.) at p. 613.)
Accordingly, in this state, activities that disturb or prevent the comfortable enjoyment of property have been held to constitute nuisances even though they did not directly damage the land or prevent its use. (See Eaton v. Klimm, 217 Cal. 362, 368 [18 P.2d 678] [smoke from asphalt mixing plant]; Willson v. Edwards, supra, 82 Cal.App. 564, 568-569 [noise and offensive odors from operation of refreshment stand]; Fendley v. City of Anaheim, supra, 110 Cal.App. 731, 736 [noise and vibration from machinery]; Morton v. Superior Court, 124 Cal.App.2d 577 [269 P.2d 81, 47 A.L.R.2d 478] [noise and excessive dust from rock quarry]; Snow v. Marian Realty Co., 212 Cal. 622, 625 [299 P. 720] [smoke from donkey-engine, discoloring the plaintiff's building]; Miles v. A. Arena & Co., 23 Cal.App.2d 680, 683-685 [73 P.2d 1260] [poisonous dust carried by wind to the plaintiff's land].)
Although, in the light of the foregoing principles, it would appear that an interference with the view from land may amount to a nuisance, the courts have held that a building or structure cannot be complained of as a nuisance merely because it obstructs the view from neighboring property. (See Katcher v. Home S. & L. Assn., 245 Cal.App.2d 425, 429-430 [53 Cal.Rptr. 923; Scharlack v. Gulf Oil Corporation (Tex.Civ. App.) 368 S.W.2d 705, 707; Dallas Land & Loan Co. v. Garrett (Tex.Civ. App.) 276 S.W. 471, 474; Hay v. Weber, 79 Wis. 587, 591 [48 N.W. 859, 860].) Similarly, it has been held that a building or structure may not be complained of as a nuisance merely because it interferes with the passage of light and air to adjoining premises. (See Western etc. Co. v. Knickerbocker, 103 Cal. 111, 115 [37 P. 192]; Ingwersen v. Barry, 118 Cal. 342, 343 [50 P. 536]; Taliaferro v. Salyer, 162 Cal.App.2d 685, 691 [328 P.2d 799]; Katcher v. Home S. & L. Assn., supra.)
Venuto v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 22 Cal. App. 3d 116, 126-27, 99 Cal. Rptr. 350 (Cal. Ct. App. 1971)
The matter of Wolford v. Thomas (1987) 190 Cal . App. 3rd 347 is also instructive. The San Francisco case involved the construction by the defendant of a penthouse level apartment on Russian Hill which obstructed the views of San Francisco Bay enjoyed by the plaintiffs. The trial court granted judgment in favor of the defendants under CCP§ 631.8 in a bench trial. Plaintiff appealed the judgment and a number of other issues involved in the trial. The court of appeals (Justice Merrill) analyzed the law concerning nuisance predicated upon view obstructions and after citing Veneto, supra, sustained the trial court’s judgment for defendant on the grounds that California does not allow a view obstruction to be a nuisance under tort principals.
Some jurisdictions, such as England, so allow prescriptive easements and nuisance claims for obstruction of views and light. The United States generally rejected such an approach, favoring the ability of landowners to have freedom to build without worrying about the adjoining landowners blocking their efforts. For most of United States history, construction and expansion was highly valued and the law encourages that approach.
The way to maintain a view is to utilize other tools. One can buy the adjoining land, of course, or buy an easement for a view (rather than trying for a prescriptive easement) or see if zoning laws on height restriction or housing associating covenants (“CCRs”) limit height or types of structures or require architectural approval. Such CCRs and zoning laws are usually found in the recorder’s office and should be examined closely. A person who builds in violation of zoning or CCRs may be required to remove the construction or be enjoined from further construction. Quick legal action would be required or the Court may refuse to enjoin, assuming construction is largely completed since a weighing of the equities is normally required in such legal actions.
Put simply, either by contract (CCRs or easement) or by law (zoning) the Courts will enforce rights to view and light but not by nuisance law.