Building on Vacant Land - Will Blocking Other's Views Affect Your Plans?

Make sure your neighbors won't have cause to complain -- or worse -- about how your new construction has blocked their view.

You’d like to build your own home, and have identified a parcel of land with a great view – perhaps of the ocean, a lake, or mountains. But if you like the view, it’s a fair bet that your neighbors do, too. In that case, before you even enter into an agreement to purchase the land, consider whether your construction will block or impinge on a neighbor’s view. If so, you will need to find out what laws, regulations, or restrictions may limit what you can do, or even prevent you from building your dream home.

Generally speaking, the law doesn’t give neighbors a right to an unobstructed view across nearby land, unless such a right has been granted by easement or otherwise, in writing by the prior owner of the land. However, city or county zoning laws (often called bylaws), other municipal ordinances, or subdivision rules and regulations (if you live in an area governed by a community or homeowners’ association) may impose some less expansive – but still very important - restrictions on what you can do with your land that might affect a neighbor’s view.

Check for Zoning Rules Affecting Neighbors’ Right to View

Your municipal or local zoning bylaws may regulate front, back, and side lot line setbacks, lot coverage minimums, and building heights. These regulations will apply regardless of whether your neighbor’s view might be affected by new construction. For example, a zoning bylaw may protect an historic and pleasingly uniform streetscape by requiring a very deep front-lot line set back.

Look Into Tree Ordinances Limiting Allowable Height

Many cities’ and towns’ ordinances regulate the height, size, and location of trees on a homeowner’s land. You may be prohibited from planting trees exceeding a minimum height, say, 15 feet, or from planting too close to a neighbor’s lot line.

In any event, you may be required to prune trees, whether new or existing, if they exceed a minimum height.

Special rules may also apply to certain locations (for example, the entrance to a hospital), certain species of trees (such as those dangerous to others who are allergic to it), or certain kinds of roads (if you’re located on a scenic road or street, for example, your ability to plant or cut down trees may be regulated.)

Check for Limitations on Fence Height

Some municipal ordinances regulate the height of fences, often limiting them to six feet or less. These ordinances may regulate both natural fencing, like bushes or shrubs, and built fencing, like brick, stone, or wood. Your state's law may also contain boundary fence restrictions; see the "Disputes Between Neighbors: Your State Laws" section of Nolo's website to find out.

Live in a Subdivision? Read Your Rules and Regulations

If your vacant land is located in a subdivision, or any other kind of planned community, homeowners’ association regulations may extend well beyond the scope of local zoning bylaws (which also apply).

They may regulate the use of certain building materials and even paint colors, the location and height of trees, outdoor clothing lines, above-ground swimming pools, and any other structure or use that might impinge on the views – not to mention the market value – of any other homeowner in the subdivision.

Subdivision rules and regulations are enforced by homeowners’ associations. While homeowners’ association members rarely take such matters to court, there’s a cost involved in a long, rancorous disagreement with them over aesthetic issues. It’s usually best to find a negotiated solution.

Where to Find Out About Laws and Regulations Governing Your Building Plans

As in so much that involves vacant land, careful investigation – even before engaging architects, builders, and other professionals, much less entering into an agreement to purchase the land – is well advised.

Typically, the rules and regulations that govern interference with a neighbor’s views are local. You can find them online on the website of the town or city where the land is located or at the city or town clerk’s office.

It’s helpful, also, to talk to your prospective neighbors early in the game, if you have any reason to think that what you want to build may offend or disturb them. You may find that they are less likely to oppose your plans if you give them a chance to see them first – and, in any event, it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn something about the people who will be your neighbors for a while to come.

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