In what can only be described as a classic example of a “First World problem,” a Beverly Hills couple sued their city for ruining their beautiful views. From their hilltop estate, the coupled had for years enjoyed unobstructed views of Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Hills, and other iconic Southern California landmarks. But when Sequoia redwood trees the city had planted many years earlier began taking on their customary sizes, the tree canopy started blocking the couple’s view. Because of the diminished view—which was getting worse as the trees grew—the couple sued the city for inverse condemnation.
In April, the Los Angeles-based Second District Court of Appeal rejected the plaintiffs’ claim. In Boxer v. City of Beverly Hills, the court held that diminution of property owner views, standing alone, does not unconstitutionally take private property and require compensation.
The Right to Take
Both the federal and state constitutions require that private property owners be compensated when government “takes” properties for public use. In their most obvious forms, takings include physical governmental actions, such as condemnations of parcels for public works projects or acquisition of access easements (such as for utility lines).
But takings can also include intangible governmental invasions of private property rights. For example, government has been found to have taken private property when offensive odors from a public sewer plant made a home uninhabitable. In addition, overwhelming noise from commercial jets landing at an airport has also been found to so interfere with the enjoyment of property as to be a taking.
Obstructed Views Aren’t Takings
In Boxer, the court examined several previous court holdings to conclude the Boxers had not stated a claim for inverse condemnation. The court noted these included holdings establishing that the diminution in value of property, by itself, is not a taking. The court also noted from previous cases that compensation had been awarded for diminished views, but only as an element of damages associated with a physical taking. For instance, when public works projects had resulted in businesses becoming less visible from public roads, damages were awarded for the effects of the reduced visibility on the businesses. But, the court concluded, this was a very different situation than the Boxers’ case presented.
A Good, but Unsurprising, Result
Overall, the court gave short shrift to the Boxers’ legal position. Even before this case was decided, the law appeared reasonably clear that the diminution in property views alone was not a taking.
Nonetheless, the holding is still a favorable one for public agencies. The trees at issue in this case had been planted nearly 30 years before the Boxers filed their lawsuit. Trees and vegetation can live—and more importantly, grow—for many years, and even decades. As public beautification and landscaping projects are common—not only for their aesthetic benefits, but also increasingly for their environmental benefits—a ruling that the plaintiffs’ claim was viable could have opened up many new avenues for agency liability. Although perhaps not impossible, it would certainly be difficult for agencies to predict—and account for the risk of—claims that could be asserted concerning their beautification or environmental enhancement projects over a span of many years.
Thankfully, in light of the Boxer ruling, agencies need not worry about having such a problem.