Scene stealers: How to deal with view-blocking neighbors
When one neighbor's gigantic home destroys another neighbor's view, scorched-earth battles can follow. Homeowners usually have no rights. But they can adopt these smart strategies.
Moby house. Monster home. McMansion. You don't care what it's called, you just don't want it looming next door, blotting out the sun and hogging your view of trees and sky, replacing it with a third-story window that peers down into your bedroom.
Unfortunately, view robbery seems to be growing alongside the return to city life. Despite the real-estate slump in most parts of the country, affluent buyers are spending small fortunes for modest bungalows in safe neighborhoods near jobs, good schools, libraries, shops and cafes. The older houses are often scraped off the lot and replaced with an architecturally commanding statement home that's been built up and out as far as the law will allow.
Neighbors who lose light, air, privacy and treasured views are outraged. "It's becoming a bigger and bigger issue, one we're facing all over the country in desirable areas," says attorney Don Erik Franzen, whose Pacific Palisades, Calif., practice, Pacific View Rights Center, helps aggrieved homeowners negotiate -- or fight -- over high-priced views of the Los Angeles coastline, canyons and mountains.
If your neighbors are planning their own massive construction project, can you do anything beyond packing up and moving or keeping the shades drawn? In some cases, yes -- though the answers to these disputes aren't easy, Franzen says.
3 existing protections
You may love the view you're used to, but it's not really yours. The Constitution guarantees the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but not the right to stretch your eyes out to the horizon.
For some lucky homeowners, however, one of the following may pick up where the Constitution leaves off:
- Local ordinances. Most cities are reluctant to enter into what officials say are essentially private disputes between neighbors. But a handful of cities -- including three in California: Santa Barbara, Rancho Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills Estates -- have adopted ordinances that protect existing homeowners' views from new construction.
Such ordinances appeal most in affluent Western communities set amid spectacular landscapes, says James Schwab, researcher and co-editor of the American Planning Association's newsletter, Zoning Practice. "If you're just sitting out in Iowa in the flatlands, you're not likely to get a view-protection ordinance," Schwab says.
In Rolling Hills Estates, where the median home-sale price rose nearly 5% in the first month of 2008 to $995,000, all home construction is scrutinized by planners and neighbors for the potential to wreck the panoramic ocean, hillside and city views of residents who arrived first. Owners proposing two-story projects (and some single-story ones) must erect story poles -- sticks or balloons outlining the silhouette of the new building on its site -- so neighbors can envision the effect. Permission to build is granted case by case.
"Views are protected from primary living areas like the kitchen, living room, dining room and master bedroom," says David Wahba, planning director. "People say, 'I stand out in the driveway, and it's going to block my view,' and those are considered, too. But they are not given as much weight."
Subjective as it is, the ordinance -- now nearly 20 years old -- has withstood court tests. "It works well," Wahba says.
- CC&Rs. In some planned developments, the covenants, codes and restrictions (CC&Rs) prohibit property owners from blocking each other's views. Newly written codes are likely to offer better protection. Older codes may have language so vague as to be useless -- for example, forbidding "unreasonable" obstruction of a view, a term that's open to interpretation. (Before buying into such a development, read the CC&Rs carefully and hire a lawyer to interpret obscure rules.)
- Deed restrictions. One Seattle-area homeowner, whose house overlooks Puget Sound, will never have to worry about losing her view to the house in front of her. That's because she used to own the property. When she sold, she attached a restriction to the deed: New construction cannot go higher than the current roof line.
What can you do?
You may not have a right to your view, but you're not without options. Here are ways to protect yourself:
Money for privacy
As in much of life, money can sometimes buy happiness, or at least buffer unhappy neighbors from a monstrosity next door. If you can afford it, the best way to ensure your views and privacy is to buy next-door lots when possible. Owning the surrounding land lets you preserve a natural buffer. But you need not hold onto the property: Resell it with restrictions attached to the deed similar to the Seattle-area homeowner's height limitation.
Deed restrictions can be set "up into the sky, down into the ground and within those four (property) boundaries," says Edward Miller, an attorney and vice president of public policy at the American Land Title Association. Examples are:
- Height or building size restrictions.
- Restrictions on building materials or architectural style.
- A restriction prohibiting any building at all.
Restrictions must, however, comply with zoning and other laws. Outlawed, for example, is the once-common practice of restricting ownership of the land to people of certain races or religions. Also, remember: The more you restrict a parcel's use, the less the land is worth on the market. Call a title attorney for the range of possibilities and ask local real-estate agents how the particular restrictions you're considering might affect the resale value of the property.
The good-neighbor defense
If you lack the means or desire to buy up surrounding lots and your neighbors are committed to their remodel, your best shot at influencing them is in the planning stages. Once a building project has begun, it's hard to stop or change a property owner's mind.
Mediator Myer Sankary, a former attorney and now president-elect of the Southern California Mediation Association, advises aggrieved neighbors to plan out a friendly approach for expressing concerns. "People don't like to be told what they have to do," he says. "They want to be asked. You can sit down with your neighbor and say, 'I know you want to do that, you have a right to, but would you mind if we give you some thoughts about how you could do this and minimize the impairment of our view?'"
Sankary has seen worried neighbors even go so far as to offer to hire their own architect in order to propose alternative ways to make everyone happy.
Ultimately, though, it all boils down to friendly persuasion. It can sometimes be a powerful tool, says the Puget Sound homeowner. Her uphill neighbors -- who themselves built a three-story house -- told her that they're worried she'll block their view if she builds the addition she's considering. Keeping them happy is important to her, she says, yet she's also feeling pressure over exercising her right to maximize the use of her property. She's still deciding how to proceed.