Views and Trees FAQ
If a neighbors tree threatens to block the scenic view from your home, unfortunately, your options to keep the view are limited. Following are answers to questions which may apply to your situation.
What are my rights if a neighbors tree is blocking my view?
In most cases, aggrieved homeowners do not have any right to force a neighbor to trim or remove a view obstructing tree (see below for alternative legal options). Unless the tree is violating view ordinances, zoning laws, subdivision rules, or existing easements, homeowners have no zoning rights to light, air, or view. This means that a neighbor can generally place as many trees as they like on their property with no concern for your view.
The one exception is that the neighbor cannot deliberately block your view with a structure that has no use to your neighbor. For example, your neighbor cannot put up a billboard, as it serves no reasonable purpose but to block your view.
What if my city has a view ordinance?
View ordinances have been enacted by a minority of cities that recognize scenic views as a valuable part of a home purchase--generally cities with ocean views or rustic backdrops. These ordinances give aggrieved homeowners the right to sue to force the neighbor restore the view by trimming or cutting down a tree.
The strength of the ordinances varies depending on the city. Some cities have adopted stringent laws that prescribe exactly what type of plants homeowners may grow, while others provide fairly large loopholes through which homeowners can plant types of trees which go over height restrictions. For example, in some cities the ordinance may make an exception for a native species, which would mean that a certain type of tree could block your view with no recourse for you to sue via the ordinance.
You will have to research your city's ordinance and determine the relative strength of the law as well as how your circumstances fit the law. Some ordinances require you to pay for the trimming (if the tree was planted before the law was adopted) or prescribes that you must wait until the tree is a certain distance from your home before you can sue.
If my city doesn't have a view ordinance, what are my options to maintain the view?
The most effective strategy is not a legal one--plain neighborly charm and an open discussion about your concerns generally works best. Neighbors may be willing to plant different types of trees that may not block your view or will agree to trim the trees to keep them at a height which is less disruptive of your view. Particularly in light of your lack of solid legal footing to fight the planting and growth of a neighbor's trees, the first and most effective step is open, friendly dialogue.
Before you approach your neighbor, enlist the assistance of other homeowners whose view may be similarly obstructed. If you share your concerns with the neighbor as a group, he may be more willing to make appropriate changes. Also, if possible, be sure to speak to the neighbor before the tree becomes a problem. It's much easier, and less traumatic to the owner (and the tree) to continuously trim a tree to keep it at a certain height than to lop off large sections when it's already mature. Be prepared to pay for the trimming as well--after all, it's your view and you likely have no legal alternative. If you want your view, you're probably going to have to pay for it.
If communicating with the neighbor doesn't work to your satisfaction, there may be alternative legal avenues that you can pursue depending on your circumstances. The offending tree may violate other local laws unrelated to view ordinances. For example, most cities have fence height limits, which sometimes include hedge fences. If your situation fits the law, your neighbor may have to trim down to this height.
If the tree is too close to power lines or streets, there are laws which require the tree to be trimmed or removed, although removal is fairly rare.
Nuisance laws are another strategy, though trees are generally not considered a nuisance. However, if a certain species of tree is harmful to other plants, property, or people (allergies), you may have a claim. Also, if there are noxious plants (such as weeds) which are blocking the view, you can force their removal.
Zoning laws that limit the height or placement of structures, fences or other features on a homeowner's property may be of some help as well, though most zoning laws cover structures and not trees.
Can my subdivision's Homeowners' Association provide assistance?
Being part of a homeowners' association (HOA) is certainly helpful in a dispute over trees and views. The HOA generally requires homeowners of the subdivision to sign a contract before the purchase of a home that details rules by which all owners must abide. Because this contract (called a Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions, or CCR) is a legally binding document, you have legal ground to sue for enforcement if a homeowner violates the CCR.
The emphasis here is that you can sue for enforcement. HOAs may place pressure on owners to abide by the CCR, but if there is a dispute which arises from grey areas of the contract or a disagreement in interpretation of the agreement that requires court action, the HOA is not obligated to sue. In other words, the HOA will probably only sue for what they consider serious violations of the CCR since lawsuits are very expensive propositions, which leaves individual homeowners responsible for lawsuits over issues affecting them.
How can I guarantee my present scenic view for the future?
Before purchasing the property, you should 1) investigate whether the city has view ordinances, as well as their relative strength; 2) check whether the property has the right to unobstructed views over neighboring property (known as a view easement); and 3) if applicable, what rules concerning views are contained in the homeowners' association's CCR.
If you can already anticipate a problem with a view (perhaps a neighbor has a small tree growing already), discuss it with the neighbor before you purchase the land to gauge his amenability toward trimming or even removing the tree (likely at your expense).
If the land has no current view easement from a neighboring property (a view easement is a written agreement by owners of adjacent property not to obstruct your view), inquire about the opportunity to purchase one, or the neighbor's willingness to agree at no cost. Before you ask about obtaining a view easement, carefully consider what you're willing to pay for the continuing benefit of an unobstructed view.