Q: I rent an apartment in an area consisting exclusively of apartment buildings. All of the apartment buildings around me, including the giant construction site behind my building, have huge flood lights (without any sort of light shade) along the property perimeters. If I were to open my shades at night, the ambient light is almost enough to read by. Keeping the shades drawn in the summer means that I get practically no fresh air.
Are there any restrictions on the wattage of flood lights? Are there any requirements that the flood lights be shaded? Do I, as a renter, have any recourse? –Katya C.
A: You’re experiencing what’s known as "light pollution." This is a serious problem, and has been addressed by scientists and lawmakers throughout the world. Excessive artificial light at night wastes energy (and contributes to air and water pollution caused by most energy production), is harmful to human health (disrupting normal sleep cycles, as you know), and harms nocturnal wildlife and ecosystems (whose normal growth and activity cycles flex with the amount of light). In addition, artificial night light impedes our natural night vision and can ruin our ability to enjoy the beauty of the night sky, stars and moon.
State legislators have long addressed pollution in its more common forms, as failed sewers or leaking underground gas tanks. Controlling light pollution is not yet on every state’s radar, however. The International Dark-Sky Association is doing its best to educate lawmakers and the public on the nature of the problem and how it can be sensibly addressed. This organization has a database of state light pollution ordinances (type "ordinances" in the query box), and is developing, with others, a model lighting ordinance that will hopefully appeal to many states.
Chances are, however, that your municipality doesn’t yet have a lighting ordinance. But even if you do have an ordinance to back you up, first talk to the surrounding property owners and explain how the light disturbs you. Ask why the lights were installed and whether they are achieving their purpose. Suggest lower wattage, fully shielded lights with a timer and/or motion sensor as a way to light property for security but with minimal affect on neighbors.
If gentle persuasion doesn’t produce results, you may want to take yourself off to small claims court, where you can sue for the damages you’ve suffered as a result of the light. If you can rely on an anti-pollution ordinance, you’ll be able to skip having to prove the illegality of the pollution, and can go right to the effect it’s had on you. But in the absence of an ordinance, you’ll need to argue that the light is a legal nuisance (a legal nuisance is a condition or activity that is harmful to health or morals, and it need not be an illegal activity in itself). You may also want to allege "light trespass," which is the spilling-over of light to areas where it isn’t intended to be, but be aware that not all states will recognize a trespass, or entry, by something as non-corporeal as light. If you can interest other neighbors who are similarly bothered by the lights, so much the better — each of you can sue for damages, which will mean that this small claims case will suddenly pose a bigger problem for those whom you’re suing. If you and your neighbors are serious about your lawsuit, work with a local lawyer to help you develop your theories and prepare your case.
Q: I have a tree whose trunk is on my side of the property line, but it has branches that extend over my neighbor’s driveway and house. My neighbor’s tenant has asked me to hire someone to trim the branches that are over his property. While I have no problem if the tenant trims the branches or hires someone to take care of the areas that are bothering him, am I really responsible for hiring the person and, more importantly, paying for the work? –Dena S.
A: In most states, a homeowner who is bothered by overhanging branches does have the right to trim them to the property line, but has no right to demand that the tree owner pay for it. In Hawaii, however, a neighbor who can prove that the tree poses the risk of substantial damage to his property may look to the owner to pay for the work. A neighbor’s right to trim the tree stops short of injuring the tree itself.
You mention that it’s the neighbor’s tenant, not the neighbor himself, who has asked you to do the work (and who may end up doing the work once you set him straight on who pays for it). This bears some looking into. Get in touch with the property owners and find out if they have authorized their tenant to take this step. Legally speaking, those overhanging branches are the property of the landlord, and as with anything else on the rental property, the tenant needs the permission of the property owner before altering or even improving the physical structure or the yard. The owner may not have a problem with the overhanging branches, and may not look forward to receiving a request for reimbursement after the tenant hires someone to lop off those branches.
Now suppose the neighboring owner agrees with his tenant — should you happily tell him to go ahead? You may want to have a hand in this tree trimming, especially if the trimming will be of large branches close to the trunk. A hatchet job that injures your tree, making it unstable or even leading to its death, is certainly not the result you want. Many tree owners wisely decide that they will share in the cost of the trimming, if only to have some control over how it’s done.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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