Deja View

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jun 15, 2011    •    678 Views

3 giant redwoods were the problem. The issue was the view. Does a property owner have the legal right to a view of San Francisco Bay that his neighbors’ trees are blocking? Or, do the neighbors have the right to the privacy the trees provide?

A view or privacy? What are the bounds of property rights when 3 increasingly tall redwoods are involved? The founder of Oracle, Larry Ellison, hired a tree attorney to get an answer.

Scheduled for their court hearing on June 6th, the case was settled privately. The neighbors told Mr. Ellison that they would trim the trees.

The Economic Lesson

Central to a market economy, property rights need to be dependable, predictable and preservable. Also, though, the boundaries of property rights need to be defined.

The “ancient lights” doctrine, from English common law, said that a property owner could prevent a neighbor from erecting a structure that blocked the sunlight he had been enjoying. Proclaiming that the importance of towns and villages superseded such broad property rights, U.S. courts ignored the “ancient lights.”

You can see that Mr. Ellison’s suit had deep historic roots.

An Economic Question: Your opinion about the following hypothetical dispute? Passed in 1978, California’s Solar Shade Act enforces a consumer’s right to install solar energy technology. Also, a local ordinance protects irreplaceable trees. Neighbor A has historic redwoods on their property. Neighbor B installs solar panels that the redwoods block. Both neighbors are environmentally proactive. Should the trees be destroyed or the solar panels removed? Explain.

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