Spite is Not in the Bundle of Property Rights

August 21, 2019  

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One benefit of zoning laws is increased home values.  These laws alter the market by requiring homes to be more desirable and appealing, thus raising property values.  The standards make these properties better, at least in the opinion of many homeowners.  Those who do not want to abide by these rules can run into disagreements with neighbors and authorities.

In Manhattan Beach, California, a homeowner was fined for using her property as a short-term rental, which was not permitted in that zone.  Later, the property was painted pink with two giant, obnoxious emojis on it.  The owner said it was just to be artistic, but it sure seemed to the community that it was designed to get back and them over the short-term rental issue.  Neighbors wanted the exterior of the house, which is private property, changed, but the city has said there is nothing or almost nothing they can do.  One can say that painting the house like this was spiteful, but acceptable because it was private property.

However, before concluding that the owner was right to paint the house, consider the far more distasteful case of a man in El Sobrante, California, who was faced a community that wanted him to pull the weeds in his yard.  He retaliated by putting a 10’ x 10’ concrete swastika in his front yard.  As one would expect, the community was outraged.  International condemnation resulted, his cars were egged, and protests were planned in front of his house.  The owner claimed to be surprised, but most people probably would have expected this negative reaction.

Where is the line for what you can do to your property if your neighbors don’t like it?  It is hard to make a case for allowing the pink paint and emojis, but not the swastika based on the rights of owners to do as they please.  It is far easier to make a case that the giant swastika can frighten people and depresses the values of neighboring properties, but defining property rights just based on the value of property is tenuous because values change in response to more than just neighbors’ behavior.  Deliberately doing things just to spite your neighbors, like building a high wall on your property right next to your neighbor’s house, is illegal just because it is spiteful.  This is known in American law as a “spite wall.”  This is the most reasonable justification for keeping the swastika out because it was a deliberate action that frightened people and depressed property values.  Most casual observers would recognize that this particular swastika was a Nazi symbol and the circumstances of the case certainly point to spite.  

If you don’t like what your neighbors do and it isn’t all that bad, like a short-term rental that isn’t noisy all night or grass that is a little to tall, it is best to just not say much about it and live and let live.  Neighbors who get upset might find that they have to deal with something far more distasteful and offensive.  When people use their property to deliberately harm others, that is cause for more action.  If your neighbors ever are upset about pulling weeds, it is probably easiest to just pull the weeds.