A spite fence is any fence or barrier intended to annoy the neighbor, and serves no purpose to the builder. In California they are governed by Civil Code Section 841.4. The most famous spite fence on California real estate was Charles Crocker’s 40 footer on Nob Hill in 1879.
The statute includes any “fence or structure…;” does that include trees or vegetation? In the California case of Wilson v. Handley the court looked at the purpose of the law ,which was to prevent what would otherwise be a lawful practice of building or maintaining an unnecessarily high barrier on their property line. It concluded that a row of trees planted on or near the boundary line between adjoining parcels of land can be a “fence or other structure in the nature of a fence.” Other decisions have found sheds or other building to fit the requirements.
In the recent California decision of Vanderpol v. Starr the jury intended to rule for the plaintiffs, but there was a problem with the special verdict forms. The Carlsbad, California defendants had tall trees that blocked the neighbors’ view of the ocean. The jury found that:
1. the defendants were maliciously maintaining trees that unnecessarily exceed 10 feet for the dominant purpose of annoying the plaintiffs;
2. The defendants’ conduct was a substantial factor in causing harm to the plaintiffs; and 3. Relating to nuisance, as to leaves & debris, but not view, the defendants did not create a condition that was an obstruction to the free use of the property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.
However, they were not asked to decide a necessary element of section 841.4: whether the plaintiffs “sustained injury in their comfort and enjoyment of their estate by such nuisance.” This is the sort of technical distinction that makes all the difference in court. Finding number three was as to the nuisance of leaves and debris, not view. The court concluded in this case that it was necessary to prove injury relating to view for purposes of the spite fence law, which the jury did not find. Thus the plaintiffs could not be awarded damages or injunctive relief.
Another hypothetical problem that could be confronted by Sacramento Real Estate Attorneys could arise in properties with zero lot line clearance. Because of the narrowness of the lots, structures such as the house or the garage could be built with no setback from the property line. The structure acts like a fence. Could it be a spite fence, if it is over 10 feet tall? Probably not; it has to satisfy the zoning ordinances, and the building permit must be approved. The offended neighbor would essentially be arguing that the government conspired with the defendant to maliciously harm him. I think the approval process gives the homeowner a pass.