Today, we consider the final issue raised by our Iowa reader (see last Monday), who wrote complaining that her neighbor planned to bulldoze a driveway along a steep grade right next to his land. She feared that the bulldozing would destroy root systems of her trees — many a century or more old — and so badly destabilize the slope that it would cause landslides that carried away his land.
We identified four questions in our reader’s inquiry. We have addressed the questions about her neighbor’s damage to trees that might be exactly on the boundary line, as well as those located on her land but with roots crossing the boundary line. Today we address the final question: what if the neighbor’s bulldozing causes the steep slope to collapse, bringing some of our reader’s land down as well. Could our reader get an injunction to stop the harm before it starts? It’s a cliffhanger.
No fear, lovers of legal drama, because Iowa (as well as most states) has accepted in one form or another the doctrine of sic utere tuo ut alienum non lædas, meaning “so use your own property as not to injure that of your neighbor.” The doctrine has been held to have limits that fall well short of your basic trespass to real estate — in today’s case, a landowner tried unsuccessfully to stop the property owner above him from sending additional drainage down a creek, eroding his banks. But the Court acknowledged that sic utere tuo ut alienum non lædas did exist and was illustrated in the generally-accepted right of lateral support.
And that right may be what rides to the rescue of our Iowa reader. The right to lateral and subjacent support means that a property owner has the obligation not to remove soil or change grades in such a way as to take away lateral support to the soils of her neighbor. The Court said it isn’t a silver bullet — it applies only to activities along the property boundaries – but that may be enough for our reader.
Bulldozing an already steep grade, and removing root systems — which in all likelihood play a substantial role in stabilizing the slope — may well violate the other landowner’s duty to provide lateral and subjacent support.
So what to do? As we saw several days ago, the Iowa courts have taken a rational view of how much harm is irreparable — and showing irreparable harm is essential to winning an injunction — making get a court order stopping the bulldozing before it starts is entirely possible. Our reader’s local attorney probably will want to engage an expert who can examine the situation and provide a detailed, technical affidavit predicting the extent and permanence of the harm which could result from bulldozing the already significant slope.
Our reader mentioned that she was also checking the various administrative agencies to be sure that the permit process was being followed. Often, a lot of potential harm can be headed off by arguing the case before agencies that — with stricter and more detailed requirements — can hobble ill-conceived projects before they take flight.
A word of caution: we’re throwing out ideas left and right, but we’re not anyone’s lawyers here. There is no substitute for local boots on the ground, an attorney from the area versed in land use law. We trust that our reader, perhaps armed with some good ideas, will refer the matter to her local lawyer.
Pohlman v Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Co., 131 Iowa 89, 107 N.W. 1025, 6 L.R.A.N.S. 146 (Sup.Ct. Iowa 1906). The railroad had a track grade and bridge located near and above Pohlman’s property. Water traditionally drained off the Pohlman place through Poole Hollow, which went through a corner of the property. But the railroad decided to improve the flow of water around its grade by running a ditch of its own into Poole Hollow. The result was that more water flowed through the Hollow during rainstorms, and the flow was at a much more rapid rate. The fast-moving flow eroded Pohlman’s land, and he sued. In his action, he argued that the railroad company had damaged his real estate and violated the old doctrine of sic utere tuo ut alienum non lædas – which translates as “so use your own property as not to injure that of your neighbor.” The trial court granted a demurrer to the railroad, throwing the case for not stating a claim on which relief can be granted.
Held: The case was properly dismissed. Superficially, the Court acknowledged, the decision was clear. Lower property was obligated to accept the flow of water discharged by the higher property, meaning that the increased flow through Poole Hollow was not a condition for which a court would grant relief. But, the Court halfway complained, “if this were all, it would seem that the case must be at an end. But counsel for appellant go farther and invoke the maxim sic utere tuo ut alienum non lædas — “so use your own property as not to injure that of your neighbor,” and insist that the case, in view of the peculiar circumstances, is brought within the operation thereof.”
The principle is that no property has greater right than the other and that each owner is obligated to use his or her property in such a way as not to injure the property of his or her neighbor. The Court acknowledged that there existed a right of lateral and subjacent support, and the theory being advanced by Pohlman was that “to all intents and purposes the situation presents a case of the removal by an adjoining proprietor of the lateral support to the soil of his neighbor.”
The Court acknowledged that the right was a natural one, and was predicated upon necessity. “As the term itself implies, it has relation to the support which in a state of nature the soil of one owner receives at the boundary line from the soil of his neighbor.” But, warned the Court, the doctrine could not be extended to embrace cases of trespass generally. “It goes no further than to inveigh against an interference within the zone of the natural support afforded by the soil conditions at the boundary line.” This case had nothing to do with boundary line support. Instead, the essence of the complaint was that by the accelerated flow of the surface water more soil had been carried away from the general surface of Pohlman’s land than otherwise would have occurred.
The point of the case is that a right of lateral and subjacent support exists, and — as of 1906 — that was about as far as sic utere tuo ut alienum non lædas extended.