Alexandria Dispute Raises Question of “Spite Fence” Liability

In my torts class, we discuss “spite fence” cases where neighbors change structures that are maliciously erected to block sunlight or views. An interesting case has arisen not far from my home in the nearby Del Rey area of Alexandria. Owner-architect Gaver Nichols has objected to garage construction that will block both light and air for Paul and Patrice Linehan’s kitchen’s window — leaving a view much like this one to enjoy. There appears to have been bad blood between the neighbors. What is particularly interesting is that Nichols designed, built and sold the Linehans’ house to them in the mid-1990s.

Nichols is building the garage two feet from the property line and blocking the only first floor window on that side of the Linehan home.

The lot depiction shown here does make the location look more spiteful than sensible, but that may not matter.

Nichols previously erected a fence along the property line in a move that outraged the Linehans. He then took down the fence and replaced it with a trellis in front of the Linhans’ window. He was acting within the city code despite the impact on his neighbor. City manager Mark Jinks insists that, while they ask people to “take neighbors’ concerns into account,” they cannot deny permits if they otherwise comply with the law. Nichols should know. He was one of those who successfully pushed through a change in local zoning law in 2009 to reduce the required setback from the property line for garages from eight feet to one foot

Jinks rejected the claim of the Linehans that this is an illegal obstruction of ventilation and light. The Linehans have objected that they did not get true notice of the construction, which notably began the Linehans were out of town for a week. You only have 15 days of the start of construction or within 30 days of the permit’s approval to object.

The case raises an interesting question of an aesthetic nuisance. Generally, such nuisances are rejected by the courts. Likewise, since we do not follow the English rule of “Ancient Lights,” we do not generally enforce a right to sunlight or views. However, the courts will enjoin “spite fences” or obstructions that are put up out of anger or malice. We have seen a few cases where trees are planted to block views or high wall built to leave backyards in darkness after long periods of tensions. Thus, in Vanderpol v. Starr (2011), a state appellate court held that a row of trees that one property owner grew along the boundary blocking an ocean view was done out of spite.

Some people will sue in private nuisance to challenge spite fence constructions. However, courts tend to look with skepticism on such claims if the construction meets permit requirements and has an independent function. California has a formal 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 owner or occupant of adjoining property is a private nuisance. Any owner or occupant of adjoining property injured either in his comfort or the enjoyment of his estate by such nuisance may enforce the remedies against its continuance prescribed in Title 3, Part 3, Division 4 of this code.”

Civil Code Section 841.4

A few years ago, the Virginia Supreme Court did allow people to sue neighbors for damaging trees, but that was direct harm rather than spite claims.

The problem here is that a garage has an obvious purpose separate from any bad blood existing between the neighbors. Alexandria homes, particularly in Del Rey, tend to be on small lots and close with other structures. He would have a strong a non-malicious claim to make and may argue that there is no practical place left for a garage.

Kudos: Christopher Brassfield

50 thoughts on “Alexandria Dispute Raises Question of “Spite Fence” Liability”

  1. It would be a darn shame if that garage collapsed suddenly and unexpectedly. I hear the Bolt Weevils are prevalent this time of year, and can destroy a newly-built garage overnight!

    And, beware electrical storms. Garages – and all buildings – on ones’ property should be well-grounded. Heavy lightning can decimate whole acres and leave entire families tragically homeless in no time …

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