Generally, homeowners have no right to a view (or light or air), unless it has been granted in writing by a local ordinance or subdivision rule. The exception to this general rule is that someone may not deliberately and maliciously block another's view with a structure that has no reasonable use to the owner.
A few cities that overlook the ocean or other desirable vistas have adopted view ordinances. These laws protect a property owner from having his view obstructed by growing trees. They don't cover buildings or other structures that block views.
Generally the ordinances allow someone who has lost a view to sue the tree owner for a court order requiring him to restore the view. A neighbor who wants to sue must first approach the tree owner and request that the tree be cut back. The complaining person usually bears the cost of trimming or topping, unless the tree was planted after the law became effective or the owner refuses to cooperate.
Some view ordinances contain extensive limitations that take most of the teeth out of them. Some examples:
See Nolo's information on How to Find Local Ordinances and State Laws to locate your city's laws and policies.
If, like most cities, your city doesn't have a view ordinance, you might find help from other local laws. Here are some laws that may help restore your view:
Fence height limits. If a fence is blocking your view, it may be in violation of a local law. Commonly, local laws limit man-made fences in back yards to six feet high and in front yards to three or four feet. Height restrictions may also apply to natural fences, such as hedges. For more information, see Nolo's Fences and Neighbors FAQ.
Tree laws. Certain species of trees may be prohibited from being grown -- for example, trees that cause allergies or tend to harm other plants. Laws may also forbid trees that are too close to a street (especially an intersection), to power lines, or even to an airport. For more information, see Nolo's Trees and Neighbors FAQ.
Zoning laws. Local zoning or planning regulations control the size, location, and uses of buildings. In a single-family area, buildings are usually limited to 30 or 35 feet high. Zoning laws also usually require a certain "setback," or distance between a structure and the boundary lines. They also limit how much of a lot can be occupied by a structure. For instance, many suburban cities limit a dwelling to 40% to 60% of the property.
Often, residents of subdivisions and planned unit developments are subject to a detailed set of rules called covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs). They regulate most matters that could concern a neighbor, including trees and views. For example, a rule may state that trees can't obstruct the view from another lot, or simply limit tree height to 15 feet. If someone violates the restrictions, the homeowners' association may apply pressure (for example, removing the privilege of using a swimming pool) or even sue. A lawsuit is costly and time-consuming, however, and the association may not want to sue except for serious violations of the rules.
Before you approach the owner of a tree that has grown to block your view, answer these questions:
First, ask the property owner or the city planning and zoning office if the property is protected by a view ordinance. (See Nolo's information on How to Find Local Ordinances and State Laws if you want to do your own research.) Then check with the real estate agent to see if neighbors are subject to restrictions that would protect your view. Also, if the property is in a planned unit development, find out whether a homeowners' association actively enforces the restrictions.
Check local zoning laws for any property that might affect you. Could the neighbor down the hill add a second-story addition?
Finally, look very closely from the property to see which trees might later obstruct your view. Then go introduce yourself to their owners and explain your concerns. A neighbor who also has a view will probably understand your concern. If someone is unfriendly and uncooperative, you stand warned.
For more information on your rights and taking a neighbor to small claims court, see Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise, by Emily Doskow and Lina Guillen (Nolo).