Thursday, August 28, 2014

Common Neighbor Disputes, Part 2: Parking, trees, and fences!

In our last blog, we covered common neighbor disputes like excessive noise, bad pets, and water damage. We received great feedback that people found our discussion of these issues helpful, so we decided to roll up our sleeves and try to referee more neighbor disputes. Here are five more common problems between feuding neighbors:

Bad neighbor parking.
At condos or apartments, parking disputes usually only occur when a guest parks in a residents space, which is easy to document and file a complaint. However, with private homes on public streets, the issue becomes a little bit more complex. The nightmare scenario for a homeowner is that they purchase their dream home and then have bad neighbors and their guests park their cars directly out front, day and night! But the street is public so anyone can park anywhere they wish, for as long as they want – right? While homeowners or residents do not have legal and exclusive control over the street parking spots in front of their homes, there are usually civic guidelines based on reasonable standards.

For instance, if the neighbor or guest parks their car in front of your home for a period longer than the municipal ordinances allow (72 hours in Sacramento,) you’d have the right to proceed with a formal complaint. Additionally, if a vehicle is too loud, elicits some sort of harm (like leaking oil) or prevents you from enjoying and preserving the value of your property, there may be legal recourse.

RV living on a neighbor’s property.
It’s not legal for anyone to occupy or live in a recreational vehicle, even if it’s on a residential property. So if a neighbor is doing this –whether they live in there or have guests in the RV, on their property or on the street, then you can document it and file a complaint. In most places you are allowed to park a recreational vehicle on your own property, you just can’t live in it. Once again, your city or county will have specific ordinances and codes that outline permissible parking for a RV or any vehicle – but just like you can’t live in your car, you can’t live in your motor home.

Overhanging trees.
While some neighbor disputes are caused by very clear issues, other problems sit in a gray area. For instance, what if your neighbor has a tree that sits on his property, but with a branch that extends into the air space over your property line? That’s more common than you might think, and the problem usually comes to a head when one of four things happens: the tree starts shedding leaves, berries, or debris into your yard, the tree shades or obstructs your view, the tree limb breaks and falls into your yard and causes damage (or looks like it will soon,) and finally, if you take out your saw and cut down the tree limb.

Here’s the good news: If a neighbor’s tree causes a nuisance – like from falling debris – and encroaches into your land, you may abate the nuisance by trimming the overhanging foliage, branch or limbs, as long as you act reasonably as to not seriously injure or kill the tree. But in most states, like California, if you seriously damage a neighbor’s tree – even if it’s hanging over your property – your neighbor may be able to recover damages (usually what they paid for the tree or replacement cost.) There are even strict laws that persecute people who intentionally damage or kill trees with jail!

So who owns the tree if it takes up space in both yards? In California, under Civil Code § 833, if the trunk of a tree stands wholly on the land of one landowner, that landowner owns the tree regardless of whether its roots, foliage, or branches have grown onto the land of another. If your neighbor ignores the problem of his tree’s branches growing into your property line and the tree causes damage, he will be financially responsible. However, if that damage comes from a storm or earthquake – an “act of God” – then the tree owner is not deemed responsible.

Tree roots
While you’re bickering over pesky tree branches with your neighbor, a bigger problem sometimes spreads beneath the soil – the tree’s roots. Roots encroaching onto and under your property can be a serious problem as they may crack sidewalks, damage pools, or even crack your home’s foundation. Once again, there is a legal reasonable standard for a homeowner to address a nuisance or something that causes damage to their property. You may sever the roots of a neighbor’s tree if they are causing damage or clearly threatening to do so. However, if you do this with negligence that harms the tree, the owner of the tree may sue you. That’s why it’s best to use a professional when cutting out roots – not only will they have a professional opinion what is necessary and document the whole process, but they’ll be able to do the job with the least harm to the tree. And what’s even better is that you can pass the bill for their professional services right over the fence to your neighbor – who is legally liable for expenses incurred as a direct result of roots from a tree on his property.

Ahhh, fences – the most polarizing of all neighbor disputes that’s caused more Hatfield v. McCoy feuds than any other issue! Typically, a single fence sits on the boundary line between two neighboring properties. But who is responsible if the fence needs to be repaired or replaced? We see this often as the fence deteriorates but confusion abounds over which neighbor needs to pay, and how much.

The answer is clear: California Civil Code § 841 requires adjacent landowners equally contribute to maintain walls and fences between them, unless one of the two landowners chooses to let the remaining sides of his property remain unfenced. However, if that landowner later fences in his property, he will be responsible for payment of his proportional share of the original value of the common fence.

However, in real life this can be a mess, as it’s next to impossible to force a neighbor to pay if they don’t have the financial means currently (or just don’t want to pay.) Some states allow you to sue your neighbor for not maintaining his or her duty to keep the fence in good condition. But even if you wanted to rip it down and put up a new one yourself you may not be within the law. Since both neighbors share ownership of the fence, you cannot remove it or destroy it without consent.

If you finally agree and start having your fence repaired or replaced, there are specific codes you need to adhere to. In many states and cities, like Sacramento, fences can only be six feet high in your front and side yards, unless you’re issued a specific variance and building permit. This includes lattice, barbed wire, or anything added to the top of the fence to try and extend it higher. If a neighbor builds a fence unnecessarily exceeding 10 feet in height just to annoy or impede their neighbor, it may be deemed a “spite fence,” opening them up to liability. Even hedges or trees planted in a row can be deemed a spite fence!

Every city, state, and municipality may have different codes and regulations when it comes to boundary fences between neighbors, so contact your local city hall or do a little digging on the web.


We hope this general information helps you understands your rights and duties as a neighbor so you can coexist happily. But we're not done yet - look for part 3 of this series of common neighbor disputes, where we cover issues like bad additions, loud paint and ugly fountains, and huge boats on your neighbor's property!

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