Friday, January 18, 2008

Sorry, Charlie!

Charlie at Across the Great Divide recently commented on Garrison Keillor's commencement of a lawsuit against his neighbors to restrain their building of a garage/addition that, according to the suit, would deprive Keillor of "light and air." Here's the Star Tribune on the lawsuit, as quoted by Charlie:

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Ramsey County District Court, claims the addition would "obstruct the access of light and air to the Nilsson-Keillor property" and "impair or destroy protected historical resources."

Charlie tut tuts a little about the tiff, suggesting perhaps, my heavens, people, can't we just get along and be neighbors? And Charlie intimates that maybe Keillor is overstepping his, er, boundry, when he complains about something happening next door, especially since Keillor's house is bigger to begin with.

For their part, the neighbors, the defendants—who Spot saw in a televised news report, so he has no link to offer—express shock and dismay, saying that they have done everything according to the zoning ordinance and just "want the whole thing to be over." Doubtless, this is true. But of course, compliance with the zoning ordinance is not the end of the story.

Spot doesn't know the merits of Keillor's case, nor has he seen the complaint, but Keillor is undoubtedly seeking to vindicate an ancient right: the abatement of a common law nuisance. Nuisance is one of the oldest torts out there, and a cause of action for nuisance may lie if "the right of quiet enjoyment [of real estate] is being disrupted to such a degree that a tort is being committed." Simply complying with a zoning ordinance does not mean you can't commit a common law nuisance.

In fact, zoning laws arose in the first place in recognition of the fact that the commencement of private litigation every time a building went up was a very inefficient method of land use regulation. As property became more urban, parcels smaller and landowners with competing interests more numerous, the Invisible Hand developed a bad case of arthritis. The adoption of zoning ordinances, however, has not eliminated the tort of common law nuisance. So for Keillor's neighbors to say "we complied with the zoning ordinance" is an incomplete answer; it does not eliminate the possibility that tort was committed against Keillor.

Air and light is something that is sometimes protected under what is called the Ancient Lights Doctrine. "Light and air" might also be called, in this modern age, access to solar and wind power.

This is one of the issues in the McMansion controversy that exists in Spot's hometown. Spot has written about it before, and the issue is featured in Spot's Car Ride Take IV. Here's a case from Spot's hometown that cries out for a common law nuisance lawsuit, even though the zoning ordinance was apparently complied with:

Spot predicts that the resurrection of the law of common law nuisance is the future of the McMansion issue.

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