Case of the Day – Friday, March 16, 2018

I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW…

It’s easy to dismiss the belly-aching of people who claim that their view of the ocean, the mountains, the lake, whatever, has been ruined by someone else’s construction, or even – as we have seen all too often – by trees that grow too tall. But it’s a different matter when your own 0x is the one being gored.

Thanks to the nosy people at Google Earth, we can clearly see the problem that resulted in today’s case from 435 miles out in space. The parties to the kerfuffle – the Ceynars and the Barths – are clearly more than one  missed paycheck away from a cardboard box. And for a lot of people, it’s hard to muster up a lot of sympathy for someone who claims a diminished view of the prairie reduced their home value by an amount that would buy more than half the average U.S. home.

Still, it’s easy enough to understand – if not to empathize – with the consternation you must feel when you spend a big chunk of money in expectation that you’re going to enjoy watching the sun set on the prairie while you sip Mai Tais, or whatever the 1% in North Dakota like to sip.

Clearly, the Ceynars were sufficiently exercised about this that they spent lavishly on lawyers, all the way through the North Dakota Supreme Court. It did not do them much good, because it turns out that a property owner’s right to perpetually enjoy the view that existed on his and her property on move-in day is simply too contingent, too mushy, too prone to generate litigation rather than progress, for any court  to infer its existence – at least absent a well-written easement signed by everyone involved that establishes the right.

Ceynar v. Barth, 904 N.W.2d 469 (N.D. 2017). The Ceynars and the Barths are neighbors at The Ridge at Hawktree, a Bismarck subdivision (that appears not to be Section 8 housing) near a golf course. Both families are members of the homeowners’ association. Before the Ceynars purchased their home, Mr. Barth won approval from the Association to build a “pool house” on his property, connected to his house with a breezeway. After the Ceynars occupied their place, the Barths commenced construction, whereupon the Ceynars complained to the Association. They claimed the pool house would block their view to the north and west toward the Hawktree Golf Club.

After the Association did nothing, the Ceynars sued the Barths and the Association, alleging breach of contract and nuisance. They claimed the pool house violated restrictive covenants and unreasonably interfered with the enjoyment of their property and diminished its value. Mr. Barth and the Association moved for summary judgment dismissing the action. The district court granted the motion, concluding the pool house did not violate any of the Association’s restrictive covenants. As well, the trial judge said, under N.D.C.C. § 42-01-01 “a nuisance consists in unlawfully doing an act or omitting to perform a duty,” and the Barths’ construction of the pool house was completely lawful.

The Ceynars appealed.

Held: It’s party time at the Barths’ pool house.

The Ceynars argued that the “pool house” violated the restrictive covenants governing the Hawktree development, because Section 4 of those rules – entitled Nuisances: Construction Activities, stated that “no other nuisance shall be permitted to exist or operate upon any Lot or other property so as to be offensive or detrimental to any other Lot in the vicinity thereof or to its occupants.” The Supreme Court, however, found that the restrictive covenant clearly related in context to construction activities “rather than the finished product.” At any rate, the Court said, the homeowners association has the authority in its sole discretion to determine whether a nuisance exists for purposes of the covenant. The Association approved the Barths’ construction plans and found no nuisance exists.

But, the Ceynars complained, there was an implied covenant that prohibited the pool house because it “destroys the open prairie look and overall theme of the community in the subdivision.” The Ceynars relied on a text message sent by, and deposition testimony of, the Association’s secretary indicating fences, outbuildings, and trees were not allowed in order to preserve an “open prairie look” in the subdivision, and on the Association president’s deposition testimony that the covenants require an “overall theme of the community.”

The Court made short work of that claim, holding that implied covenants are not favored by the courts and that, at any rate, the Ceynars could point to no evidence that these vague statements had anything to do with the plans of the developer or that the Barths were aware of a policy favoring the “open prairie look.” North Dakota precedent clearly holds that covenants will be given effect only “when clearly established,” and this implied covenant was as solid as Jello.

The meat of the Ceynars’ claim was that the district court erred in dismissing their statutory private nuisance claim against the Barths. Section 42-01-01, N.D.C.C., defines a nuisance as “unlawfully doing an act or omitting to perform a duty, which act or omission… annoys, injures, or endangers the comfort, repose, health, or safety of others; or in any way renders other persons insecure in life or in the use of property.” The Ceynars complained that before the pool house, “we enjoyed the open prairie look and feel. Not only have we also lost views of the Burnt Creek Valley and the golf course because of the pool house, the size and scope of the pool house and breezeway towers over our property, depriving us of anything that could be considered an open prairie look.” In fact, they presented an appraisal of their property indicating the obstructed view lowered its value by $140,000. They also presented photographs taken before and after construction of the pool house demonstrating their obstructed view.

The district court dismissed the statutory nuisance claim, reasoning that construction of the Barths’ pool house was lawful, so there could be no statutory nuisance. The Supreme Court agreed with the Ceynars that this holding was wrong, but any sense of victory they experienced was short-lived.

The Ceynars argued the district court failed to engage in the required balancing test, “a balancing of the utility of defendant’s conduct against the harm to the plaintiff, plaintiff’s attempts to accommodate defendant’s use before bringing the nuisance action, and plaintiff’s lack of diligence in seeking relief.” The Supreme Court acknowledged that while “scenic views may enhance the value of a tract of land… [and] such a benefit, while intangible may enhance market value, with buyers willing to pay extra for the view,” that did not translate to a legally protectable interest. “Traditional American property law fails to protect access to light over neighboring land,” the Court held, at least “in the absence of an express easement or covenant, advantageous views are unprotected.” Because a landowner has no right to an unobstructed view, the size and shape of a neighboring structure cannot be a nuisance even if it effects material reduction in market value.

This rule is necessary, the Court observed, because

extending the law of nuisance to encompass obstruction of view caused by lawful construction of a neighboring building would unduly restrict a landowner’s right to the free use of property, interfere with established zoning ordinances, and result in a flood of litigation. Because every new construction project is bound to block someone’s view of something, every landowner would be open to a claim of nuisance. If the first property owner on the block were given an enforceable right to unobstructed view over adjoining property, that person would fix the setback line for future neighbors, no matter what zoning ordinances provide. The practical implication of such a right would be the need of every ‘servient’ owner to obtain a waiver of the easement of view created in the “dominant” landowner. Such obstacles to land ownership and development, for the sake of a clear view, hardly commend themselves.”

Inasmuch as the Ceynars had no cognizable right to an unobstructed view from their property, the Barths’ construction of the pool house as a matter of law did not unreasonably interfere with the Ceynars’ use and enjoyment of their property.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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