In 2001, Eugene and Jenny Vanderpol noticed that the 20 eucalyptus trees on their neighbors’ Carlsbad, California, property had grown tall enough to block their view of the Pacific Ocean. They offered to pay to have the trees trimmed, and their neighbors, Fred and Indra Starr, agreed to have the trees cut back to 14 feet tall.
A year later, the Vanderpols again paid for a trimming. However, in 2004, on the day the trees were to be trimmed a third time, Indra Starr decided she wanted only a few feet cut off select trees. The Vanderpols were upset, but in the end, the trees were not trimmed at all.
Sometime later—the Vanderpols contend it was a month, the Starrs say three years—the Starrs planted additional trees: up to 20 conifer pines and some 65 Italian cypresses.
By 2007, according to the Vanderpols, the trees had grown to 40 to 50 feet tall. The Vanderpols’ attorney notified the Starrs that their trees were again “obstructing the Vanderpols’ view and advised the Starrs to trim their trees.” The Starrs declined.
In 2009, the Vanderpols sued the Starrs, alleging they violated California’s “spite fence law,” which stated that any fence or fence-like structure “maliciously erected or maintained for the purpose of annoying the owner or occupant of adjoining property” is prohibited.
The Vanderpols claimed that the Starrs “planted and/or installed numerous trees, shrubs and/or similar plants … near the common property line at such a height and density” so as to block the ocean view and devalue their home by $57,000.
The Starrs maintained that the trees were allowed to grow for privacy, not to irritate their neighbors. “The Vanderpols have a big deck and can look down onto the Starrs’ property,” says the Starrs’ attorney, Joseph Dicks. “[My clients] lacked any privacy without a hedgerow there.”
Should the Starrs have had to trim their trees? You be the judge.
Next: The Verdict.
The jury ruled in favor of the Vanderpols, though the judge refused to award them $57,000 in damages, since he also ordered the Starrs to cut back the trees to under 16 feet. As a result, he said, the Vanderpols’ property would no longer be devalued.
The Starrs appealed, claiming that the Vanderpols didn’t prove that the trees injured “either [their] comfort or the enjoyment of [their] estate,” as is outlined as a condition in the spite fence law. Both parties agreed to waive a jury for the second trial in 2011, and this time, the judge ruled in favor of the Starrs: “The Court is not persuaded that maintenance of the trees … is done for the dominant purpose of annoying or vexing Plaintiffs.”
“The [spite fence] law doesn’t say that the trees can’t vex and annoy the neighbors,” says Dicks, the Starrs’ attorney. “It says that it can’t be their dominant purpose.”
In July 2012, the Vanderpols filed another appeal, claiming that the trial court considered only the “current condition” of the trees when examining dominant purpose and arguing that the trees were “capable of eventually blocking the Vanderpols’ view.” But the court denied the motion for a new trial: “We conclude substantial evidence supports the trial court’s determination that the [Starrs’] dominant purpose … was not to annoy or vex the Vanderpols.”
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