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The Law Protects You from Spite Fences, but What About “Spite Hedges?”

Your property once had a beautiful, panoramic view of Long Island Sound, or perhaps the Litchfield Hills, but it’s now blocked by your neighbor’s hedge.  Is there anything you can do to restore the view other than ask the neighbor nicely to cut back the hedge.  If the hedge grew naturally over the course of many years, you may be out of luck. But, if the neighbor planted the hedge with the purpose of blocking your view, it might be a “spite hedge,” and you may be able to to invoke Connecticut’s “spite fence” statutes, Connecticut General Statutes Sections 52-480 and 52-570.

The spite fence statutes prohibit the “malicious erection” of “any structure” intended to annoy or injure adjacent owners. We recently commented on a new case, Sylvain v. Paecht,70 Conn. L. Rptr. No. 2 (September 14, 2020), p. 47, where a Superior Court held that you will not have to show actual ill-will in the heart of your neighbor in order to prove malice in the erection of a structure. Rather, the Court will balance objective factors regarding the benefits and detriments resulting to each property owner. That’s the good news. But can the planting or maintenance of a hedge constitute an “erection” of a “structure” covered by the statutes?

More recently, in Lucas Point Association v. 17950 Lake Estes Drive Realty, LLC, another Superior Court considered this very question, namely: “whether planting trees [or shrubs] can constitute the erection of a malicious structure.” Happily for you, beleaguered property owner, the Court determined that, “[t]here is no rational reason to limit the concept of a malicious/spite fence to ‘dead’ wood and exclude ‘living’ wood” regarding the creation of a fence-like structure for malicious purposes. So, a hedge or row of trees can be considered a structure prohibited by the spite fence statutes.

The Court, however, drew an important distinction between the maintenance of such existing hedges or trees versus the planting or creation of such a flora wall. As the spite fence statutes ban only the malicious erection of structures, the Court held that the statutes do not ban the maintenance or growth of such existing hedges or trees: “[h]edges are rows of trees, and trees are everywhere. Many trees are tall bushy, and entirely capable of blocking views. The natural growth of trees is an inescapable fact of life. The law is reluctant to compel possessors of land to alter the natural condition of their property.” According to this Court, thus, the law does not ban any malicious allowance of growth, only the malicious planting.

So, beleaguered property owner, the question is, did your neighbors install the hedge, or have they only allowed it to grow?  If you have any questions about spite fences, hedges, or any other property disputes with a neighbor, please call Douglas R. Steinmetz and he would be happy to discuss your question with you.