Case of the Day – Thursday, September 12, 2019

FOLLOWING DIOGENES (AND OTHER ANCIENT LIGHTS)

I found myself reading a revealing scientific (well, social scientific) paper yesterday, with the improbable title, On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. No, I am not making this up. The study asked people to rate the profundity of randomly-generated sentences of touchy-feely crap (such as “wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). The authors concluded, among other things, that “a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.”

I was impressed, because up to the time I read the study, I firmly believed that wholeness really does quiet infinite phenomena. Guess not, huh?

Unsurprisingly, when I considered today’s case – which illuminates the old doctrine of “ancient lights” – I looked for the type of bogus profundity that Professor Pennycook and his colleagues were writing about. As you can see to the left, finding something that was suitably bullshit was not hard.

“Ancient lights” was decidedly not bullshit. The name refers to, of all things, windows that have been around for awhile, but eventually the name was loaned to an English doctrine of “presumptive title to light and air, received over land of another person, arising from the uninterrupted enjoyment of it for twenty years and upward, through the window of a dwelling house” (as described in Clawson v. Primrose). But America, being a land of opportunity and progress, was unwilling to tie the hands of property owners by implying easements of light and air in favor of countless neighbors.

Still, some found need of “ancient lights,” and – because the doctrine was unavailable to them – tried the “side door.” The “side door” did not work for Rick Singer and the parents who bribed their kids’ way into college. And it didn’t work too well for the plaintiffs in today’s case.

Mohr v. Midas Realty Corporation, 431 N.W.2d 380 (Supreme Court, Iowa, 1988). Erick Mohr owned an office building situated on a commercial “strip” along Highway 20 in Fort Dodge, Iowa, with parking in front for tenants and customers. In 1983, Mohr’s neighbors to the west, Midas Realty Corporation and the Stan and Lynn Building Partnership, built a muffler shop on the front of their property with parking in the rear.

The muffler shop complied with zoning restrictions and setback lines, but it blocked view of the Mohrs’ building to traffic approaching from the west.

Erick sued Midas for “unreasonable interference with Plaintiff’s lawful use and enjoyment of his private property.” He claimed damages and sought abatement of the alleged nuisance, that is, removal of the muffler shop.

Midas moved for summary judgment, arguing that Erick could not win under existing law. The trial court agreed, holding that Iowa nuisance law did not allow a suit for interference with view.

Erick appealed.

Held: Iowa law does not recognize a right to a view, and therefore, interference with a neighbor’s view does not a private nuisance make.

A private nuisance is generally defined at common law as “a substantial and unreasonable interference with the interest of a private person in the use and enjoyment of his land,” Not every interference with a person’s use and enjoyment of land is actionable, however. Here the trial court focused on a preliminary determination whether Midas’ construction of the building, whether reasonable or unreasonable, interfered with a legally protected interest belonging to Erick Mohr.

Although the petition alleges interference with light, air, and view, Erick admitted at oral argument that the heart of his claim was that the Midas Muffler shop blocked the motoring public’s view of Erick’s building, thereby diminishing its value as a commercial property. Thus, he argued, Midas had enhanced its property at Erick’s expense, giving rise to a private nuisance action, where the parties’ competing interests in the use and enjoyment of land are weighed according to a reasonableness standard.

Midas argued that while Erick tried to pigeonhole his claim into a nuisance action, it was really a claim under the old English common law doctrine of “ancient lights.” Under that doctrine, a landowner acquired a negative prescriptive easement for sunlight across an adjoining landowner’s property and could prevent the adjoining landowner from obstructing the light once the easement was established by the passage of time.

The only problem with the “ancient lights” doctrine, Midas argued, was that every state considering the doctrine, including Iowa, repudiated its premise as inconsistent with the needs of a developing country. In fact, Iowa’s legislature passed a law in 1873 prohibiting the implied acquisition by adjoining landowners of “any easement of light or air, so as to prevent the erection of any building on such land.” Iowa Code § 564.2.

Mohr vigorously argued that his claim of nuisance had nothing to do with any claim of prescriptive easement for light and air, but the Court was unpersuaded: “We recognize,” the Court ruled, “that while disavowing any cause of action for interference with light, air, and view unless granted by express contract, our prior cases have left unanswered the question whether such claim might be sustained under the doctrine of nuisance. Squarely confronted with the question, however, we are convinced that giving vitality to such a cause of action in nuisance would be the same thing as granting a prescriptive easement.”

In other words, recognizing Erick’s right to enforce a nuisance claim for intentional interference with light, air, or view as something other than enforcement of the doctrine of “ancient lights” would be a distinction without a difference. “For a variety of reasons,” the Court said, “we think such an expansion of the law of nuisance would be unwise, at least in regard to the interference with view claimed here.”

Extending the law of nuisance to encompass obstruction of view due to lawful construction of a neighboring building would unduly restrict a property owner’s right to the free use of his or her property, interfere with established zoning ordinances, and result in an endless flood of litigation. Every new construction project is bound to block someone’s view of something, opening every landowner up to a claim of nuisance. The practical implication of such a right would be the need of every servient owner to obtain a waiver of the view easement from the “dominant” landowner. This would reduce to development decisions being made by a committee of all owners with sightlines to the project.

The Court found “no compelling reason to recognize an enforceable right of view over private property. Accordingly, we hold there can be no cause of action grounded in nuisance for blocking that view.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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