Monday, September 7, 2009
There was an interesting story in the New York Times a few days ago about a dispute between two neighboring landowners and the town of Westport, Connecticut over a stone wall. Albert and Susan Hancock built the wall in 2005 around their home, replacing an earlier wall on approximately the same line. They did not obtain a permit. Jeffrey and Elizabeth Lillien, neighbors of the Hancocks, filed a complaint with the town to stop the construction citing a number of concerns, including possible wetlands issues and interference with sight lines.
The legal issues are murky, but the story is interesting because of the sheer amount of money involved. Westport is a wealthy community, where the median home price is $970,000. The Hancocks spent $170,000 constructing the wall and have, to date, spent $150,000 on legal fees defending it, plus $50,000 on inspections and related costs. The Lilliens and the town of Westport have also incurred significant expenses. The Lilliens ' attorney told the Times that he has 30 property cases pending, including one in which a woman's vegetable garden was bulldozed by a neighbor.
This case is surely an anomaly in terms of cost, but it still highlights one reason that so few property disputes (particularly among homeowners) reach the appellate courts -- high litigation costs. It also begs the question about how those in less favorable economic circumstances handle such disputes. Both the Hancocks and the Lilliens believe that they are justified in enforcing their respective property rights. In this case, they both have the resources to, in their own minds at least, fight the good fight. But fundamental issues about social justice are raised in the more common case, where only one, or neither party, has such resources.
[Comments are held for approval, so there will be some delay in posting]