Litigation

Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder—Not of the Court

In Myrick v. Peck Electric Company, 2017 Vt. LEXIS 4, the Vermont Supreme Court, offered the chance by landowners displeased by solar arrays to rule that an action for private nuisance could be based solely on aesthetic considerations, chose not to abandon its long-standing precedent.

After their neighbors rented property to the defendant solar energy companies, who wished to construct commercial solar arrays, the plaintiff landowners brought suit, arguing that the solar arrays were a private nuisance because they affected the “rural aesthetic” of the surrounding countryside and caused neighboring properties to lose value. The plaintiffs urged the court to overrule its 1896 decision of Woodstock Burying Ground Ass’n v. Hager, in which the court had held that the law “will not declare a thing a nuisance because it is unsightly and disfigured, nor because it is not in a proper and suitable condition, nor because it is unpleasant to the eye, and a violation of the rules of propriety and good taste, nor because the property of another is rendered less valuable.”

The court declined to overrule Hager. First, it reasoned, an unsightly piece of property did not affect a neighbor’s ability to use and enjoy his own land. Second, while such bases for nuisance claims as noise, light, vibration, and odor could be quantified, aesthetic preferences were subjective; some people might even enjoy the sight of the solar panels. Third, a court was “ill-suited to be an arbiter of style or taste,” and aesthetic preferences were best left to zoning authorities. Finally, the majority of states followed the same rule as Vermont.

Although plaintiffs had conceded that they were not arguing that diminution in value in itself was sufficient to constitute a nuisance, the court took the opportunity to clarify Vermont law. A decrease in property value, it stated, did not mean that there had been an interference with the use of that property. Moreover, allowing a claim of nuisance based solely upon lowered property value invited speculation and would likely lead to neighborly disharmony.

Accordingly, the court reaffirmed its rule that in Vermont, private nuisance law did not include a cause of action for aesthetic harm alone—no matter how ugly one’s property might be to one’s neighbors.

Lexis subscribers can access the opinion at: Myrick v. Peck Elec. Co., 2017 VT 4 (Vt. 2017)

Lexis Advance subscribers can find the opinion at: Myrick v. Peck Elec. Co., 2017 VT 4 (Vt. 2017)

Author:  Susan Higginbotham, Lexis-Nexis Case Law Editor

 

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