What's a Spite Fence and What Can I Do About the One My Neighbors Built?

If your neighbor constructs a spite fence, making the neighborhood look terrible and calling attention to the property, can you file suit?

Most neighbors are kind, normal people. But every now and then, you’ll have a truly terrible experience with a neighbor who, for whatever reason, has come to despise you. These neighbors may express their feelings in all sorts of ways – including building “spite fences.”

Spite fences are fences constructed purely to annoy a neighbor. They’re usually tall, ugly, or both. Spite fences are typically metal or wood, but they can also be made up of trees or shrubs. If your neighbor constructs a spite fence, making the neighborhood look terrible and calling attention to the property, what should you do?

Consider Resolving the Underlying Issue

A spite fence does not fall from the clear blue sky. Spite is an emotion, and your neighbor would feel compelled to construct an annoying fence only if he or she was feeling strong emotions towards you. In other words, the fence is the symptom, not the disease.

Disputes like this, which are more emotional than purely legal or financial, are often best resolved in mediation. Mediation is essentially a conversation between you and your neighbor, facilitated by a trained third-party neutral. While a judge in a courtroom can resolve your legal disputes, the judge typically does not have the power to address the underlying issues between you – communication breakdowns, distrust, or hostility.

A trained mediator can help you and your neighbor figure out exactly why there’s a wall between you – literally and figuratively – and brainstorm ways of taking it down.

Consider an Action for Nuisance Under State or Local Law

Mediation might not be a realistic option, however, if the relationship between you and your neighbor is simply irreparable. In that situation, if you want to force the neighbor to remove the fence, you might turn to the courts and sue your neighbor for what’s known as “private nuisance.”

A lawsuit for nuisance is usually limited to circumstances where a neighbor is playing loud music, for example, disturbing your ability to quietly enjoy your property. The mere fact that you think your neighbor’s house is painted an ugly color, or built a fence that doesn’t match your own aesthetic taste, does not in most instances give you grounds for a lawsuit.

However, some states and local legislatures have enacted laws specifically addressing situations where fences were installed for spiteful or malicious reasons.

California Civil Code Section 841.4 is an example of one such statute, noting that: “Any fence or other structure in the nature of a fence unnecessarily exceeding 10 feet in height maliciously erected or maintained for the purpose of annoying the owner or occupant of adjoining property is a private nuisance.”

Rhode Island Code Section 34-10-20 similarly states that: “A fence or other structure in the nature of a fence which unnecessarily exceeds six feet in height and is maliciously erected or maintained for the purpose of annoying the owners or occupants of adjoining property, shall be deemed a private nuisance, and any owner or occupant who is injured, either in the comfort or enjoyment of his or her estate thereby, may have an action to recover damages for the injury.”

Using statutes such as these, you could sue your neighbor for nuisance.

Remember that you will have the burden of proof to show a court that your neighbor installed the fence for malicious purposes. Evidence you might present could include pictures of the fence (to show that it is purposefully ugly), diagrams of its location (to show that it is needlessly tall and blocks light), the timing of its installation (right after an argument between you and your neighbor, which you would hopefully have separate documentation of, such as an email or even copies of emails you sent to friends describing the situation), or testimony from other neighbors about the surrounding circumstances and motivations (to show that your neighbor dislikes you).

Putting these pieces of evidence together, a court might order that your neighbor remove the fence, and possibly compensate you for the nuisance.

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