Five unusual lawsuits between neighbors over smells

Neighbors can fight over many things with numerous examples involving McMansions noted on this blog (see here and here for two cases). How about squabbling over smells? Here are five interesting cases with two examples excerpted below:

In 2001 David and Joan Gallant bought their house outside Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, from Lee and Shirley Murray, whose farm abuts the Gallants’ property on three sides. For years, the two couples appear to have coexisted peacefully, but relations soured for unnamed reasons toward the end of the decade. In 2013 the Murrays erected an unusual barrier on their property line near the Gallants’ house: a massive, reeking pile of cow dung so large it could be seen on Google Earth.

“The manure was fresh, unseasoned, wet, [and] raw,” David Gallant said in his affidavit. In 2015, the Gallants sued the Murrays, and were awarded $11,300 USD in damages…

In Singapore, a newly-arrived Chinese family living in an apartment next to a Singaporean Indian family could not abide their neighbors’ cooking smells—particularly curry dishes. The Indian family agreed to shut their doors and windows when they cooked curry, but they balked when the Chinese family subsequently asked them to stop cooking it altogether.

A government mediator helped them come to an agreement: The Indian family would cook curry only when the Chinese family was out, and the Chinese family would try a curry dish. The case caused an uproar in the Southeast Asian city-state, with many Singaporeans declaring that the agreement treated the Indian family unfairly and that the Chinese family should learn to tolerate Indian Singaporean cooking. A nationwide curry movement erupted, including a “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” campaign and an annual weeklong series of curry-themed events.

I am now trying to imagine a case that includes the odd combination of a smelly McMansion…

Seriously, though, smells can have a large effect on quality of life. Few people want to live near a landfill or certain industrial properties. I would guess that most suburban communities don’t have a distinctive positive or negative smell outside of their regional distinctions (such as being close to the ocean or the mountains, as two examples). Perhaps this is like having a generic American accent that makes it difficult to know where someone is from – suburbs everywhere have a faint smell of lawns.

Smells can also cross property lines or units within the same property in unique ways. Indeed, you might not even notice anything until the smell is overwhelming. It can be difficult to trace the source. It may not be present at all times (in the cases above, the manure wasn’t going anywhere while a cooking smell can come and go).

Would such lawsuits involve air rights? What expectations should the average resident have that they can control the smells in their space?

Ongoing zoning controversies with mosques in New Jersey

Two recent zoning cases involving proposed mosques in New Jersey have garnered attention. A quick overview of each.

First, a newly filed federal lawsuit in Bayonne, New Jersey:

The mosque is proposed for an old warehouse at the end of a dead-end street on the city’s east side. The structure, built as a factory, previously housed a chapter of the Hired Guns Motorcycle Club, “made up of sworn law enforcement officers,” according to its website

To build the mosque into the existing space, Bayonne Muslims — the nonprofit organization that owns the space — went to the city in August 2015 to request zoning exemptions. It asked for requirements that a buffer between the existing building and adjacent properties be waived, and that it be able to provide less parking than required.
Ultimately, after three tumultuous public hearings, the proposal failed to gain approval at a March 6 meeting. The vote was 4-3 in favor of the project, but a supermajority — greater than the four votes in favor — was required under state law…
During the public hearings, some opponents expressed concern over the traffic and noise a mosque might bring to their dead-end street. Others cited verses from the Koran they asserted supported violence against non-Muslims.

A New Jersey town will pay an Islamic group $3.25 million to settle a lawsuit over its denial of a permit to build a mosque, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday…

The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge sued Bernards Township, an upscale town in central New Jersey, last year, claiming it changed its zoning ordinances in order to deny the group’s plans. The Justice Department also sued the town last year, alleging it treated the group differently than other religious groups…

Central among those was parking: Township planners had concluded that because Friday afternoon was considered peak worship time, congregants would most likely be arriving straight from work and would each need a parking space.

But a federal judge disagreed, and wrote in a ruling Dec. 31 that the town hadn’t conducted similar assessments of worship habits when churches or synagogues had made applications.

The Justice Department lawsuit also alleged the town changed its zoning laws to require houses of worship in residential districts to be at least 6 acres — larger than the lot the Islamic Society had purchased in 2011.

There are multiple issues at play in these cases:
1. Do municipalities apply the same standards to all religious groups? If not, why do particular groups receive more attention? (The two cases above involve Muslim groups. Do orthodox Jewish groups also receive a lot of attention?)
2. Is it legitimate to deny religious land uses for issues like traffic and parking (common complaints in suburban settings regarding many proposed land use changes)? In other words, are these typical NIMBY complaints or is there something unique about religious buildings?
3. Why are a number of these cases popping up in New Jersey? The state has a long history with exclusionary zoning issues – see the Mt. Laurel doctrine which developed out of a lawsuit. Additionally, it is home to a number of white suburbanites living in suburbs that they would like to preserve or protect.
4. Is the only path to resolution a federal lawsuit? Once such cases reach the level of a federal lawsuit, I would argue the communities have already lost. This is not just because RLUIPA cases tend to be settled in favor of the religious groups. I also imagine such lawsuits can bring negative attention to a community; do they really want to be known as the suburb that refused a certain group to worship there?
(These are not issues isolated to New Jersey. Perhaps there are similar conditions in the Chicago area suburbs. See earlier posts about mosque controversies in the Chicago region including here, here, and here.)

Legislative options to add more housing in California

A number of legislative options are on the table in California to encourage the construction of more housing and counter the actions of nearby residents:

Dozens of the solutions floating in the state Legislature aim to address that supply problem, including several that would streamline the process by which housing projects get approved (one, for example, would limit the circumstances in which a special permit could be required to build a granny flat). Others would not-so-subtly make it much harder for local residents and government agencies to block new projects, like by requiring a two-thirds vote for any local ordinance “that would curb, delay, or deter growth or development within a city.”

That latter bill epitomizes the frustration many young working people and families have as they try to attain what was once a milestone of adulthood—homeownership—that is now out of reach for even those making decent money. Some of those folks are YIMBYs, or supporters of a “Yes in My Backyard” agenda. “We know that our housing struggles are not the result of impersonal economic forces or lack of individual effort, but derive from bad policy and bad laws that have restricted housing growth for decades,” said YIMBY leader Brian Hanlon, co-founder of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, at an April Assembly committee hearing….

It’s unclear what the chances for each bill are. Though legislators seem eager to spur more housing construction quickly, some of their allies might not be. Many environmentalists, for example, want new projects to comply with CEQA, the state’s landmark environmental law that requires developers to study and possibly mitigate the environmental impact of whatever they build. And developers are never quick to embrace mandates that they include affordable units in their projects.

If the bills do pass, will any of them actually make a dent in what’s become a crippling problem all across the state? The Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters recently wrote off the current proposals in the Legislature as “tepid, marginal approaches that would do little to close the gap.” Cuff admits many critics dismiss individual bills as a drop in the bucket. “But on the other hand, let’s put a drop in the bucket,” she says. “A drop is better than a drought.”

This is a long-term issue that may take decades to work out. The issue is complicated as it involves social class, race and ethnicity, understandings of local control, and property values.The article notes that some claim the legislative suggestions thus far are too small and I suspect a number of the bills would lead to lawsuits from communities and residents.

If I had to make a prediction (a near impossible task) based on what has happened in many suburbs throughout the United States, I would guess that the wealthier communities will find ways around these legislative actions. This could happen through the courts as they can better afford the time and money or there could be loopholes in the bills. Either way, the burden of the affordable or cheaper housing will likely fall on communities that are lower income and non-white.

Why Google’s plan to scan every book in the world was halted

Google had plans to scan every book but the project hit some legal bumps along the way and now the company has “a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them”:

Google thought that creating a card catalog was protected by “fair use,” the same doctrine of copyright law that lets a scholar excerpt someone’s else’s work in order to talk about it. “A key part of the line between what’s fair use and what’s not is transformation,” Google’s lawyer, David Drummond, has said. “Yes, we’re making a copy when we digitize. But surely the ability to find something because a term appears in a book is not the same thing as reading the book. That’s why Google Books is a different product from the book itself.”…

It’s been estimated that about half the books published between 1923 and 1963 are actually in the public domain—it’s just that no one knows which half. Copyrights back then had to be renewed, and often the rightsholder wouldn’t bother filing the paperwork; if they did, the paperwork could be lost. The cost of figuring out who owns the rights to a given book can end up being greater than the market value of the book itself. “To have people go and research each one of these titles,” Sarnoff said to me, “It’s not just Sisyphean—it’s an impossible task economically.” Most out-of-print books are therefore locked up, if not by copyright then by inconvenience…

What became known as the Google Books Search Amended Settlement Agreement came to 165 pages and more than a dozen appendices. It took two and a half years to hammer out the details. Sarnoff described the negotiations as “four-dimensional chess” between the authors, publishers, libraries, and Google. “Everyone involved,” he said to me, “and I mean everyone—on all sides of this issue—thought that if we were going to get this through, this would be the single most important thing they did in their careers.” Ultimately the deal put Google on the hook for about $125 million, including a one-time $45 million payout to the copyright holders of books it had scanned—something like $60 per book—along with $15.5 million in legal fees to the publishers, $30 million to the authors, and $34.5 million toward creating the Registry….

This objection got the attention of the Justice Department, in particular the Antitrust division, who began investigating the settlement. In a statement filed with the court, the DOJ argued that the settlement would give Google a de facto monopoly on out-of-print books. That’s because for Google’s competitors to get the same rights to those books, they’d basically have to go through the exact same bizarre process: scan them en masse, get sued in a class action, and try to settle. “Even if there were reason to think history could repeat itself in this unlikely fashion,” the DOJ wrote, “it would scarcely be sound policy to encourage deliberate copyright violations and additional litigation.”

Out-of-print books with uncertain copyright status scuttle what could be one of the great treasure troves of information? This suggests we still have a ways to go until we have legal structures that can deal with the information-rich and easily accessible online realm. If a deal could eventually be worked out for books, what about older music, art, and other cultural works?

A related thought: having all those books available might indeed change the academic enterprise in several ways. First, we could easily access more sources of data. Second, we could potentially cite many more sources.

Chevy Chase woman files lawsuit after lawsuit against her neighbor’s teardown

Chevy Chase, Maryland has experienced a number of discussions over redevelopment including this one-woman “all-out war” against her neighbor’s teardown:

First, in 2009, she sued the town of Chevy Chase in an attempt to block its approval of the Schwartzes’ building permit — but that failed. Then she appealed — and was denied. “I would say Chevy Chase has spent upwards of $50,000 because of Deborah,” Hoffman said. “Not just in legal bills, but in all the staff costs in answering her letters and telephone calls.”Vollmer next filed a similar lawsuit against Montgomery County and lost again. Soon afterward, she watched in horror as the Schwartzes erected a handsome, stone-encrusted house at 7200 44th St. The house, which she excoriated for its size, offers evidence of the neighbors’ clashing lifestyles.

Vollmer drives a Prius. The Schwartzes have a Mercedes. Vollmer prizes rough-hewn back yards with lots of vegetation. The Schwartzes appreciate a more manicured aesthetic. “Some people may question my motives,” Vollmer said. “But what’s happening in this town, these developers, tearing down old homes. I’m standing up for my rights. .?.?. And then this whole thing just kind of evolved” from that.

The dispute’s next evolution occurred in court. Vollmer sued the Schwartzes in Montgomery County Circuit Court — not once, but twice — over arguments involving the shared driveway. She lost both…

“We have had to go to court more than 16 times because of her multiple lawsuits and her behavior,” Schwartz said. “We love our home and our neighborhood, and we can only hope that reason will prevail in the future.”

And there is more here including an arrest for destruction of property, another lawsuit over paving the shared driveway, and a second arrest. In the end, is Vollmer simply standing up for her property rights (and she apparently has the resources and legal training to do so) amidst the bullying of mansionizing new residents or is she a public nuisance against inevitable change and wasting taxpayer money?

One thing this article does not explain: how in the world was the new house approved with a shared driveway? The picture with the story suggests the teardown was built close to the lot line:

Given Vollmer’s behavior, it is not clear this would have solved the issue. But, having a shared driveway could lead to issues even if the new neighbors didn’t build a new large home. Perhaps this is why suburbanites need passive aggressive signs to fight each other rather than lawsuits…

How to get wealthier communities to accept affordable housing

This article discusses two tools to promote affordable housing in wealthier communities: regulations and lawsuits.

But Massachusetts has a work-around: A state statute, called 40B, allows developers to get around exclusionary zoning and build affordable housing in communities where only a small percentage of units are considered affordable. (A few other states have similar policies.) The statute, passed in 1969 and upheld by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court in 1973, has led to the construction of 1,300 developments throughout the state, containing a total of 34,000 units of affordable housing, according to Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, or CHAPA.Projects built under 40B are almost always controversial: The statute was enacted in the first place because most communities outside of big cities didn’t permit multi-family housing, said Ann Verrilli, the director of research at CHAPA. Even with the statute, communities often spend millions of dollars in legal fees to try and stop the projects, Verrilli told me…

The experience of developers trying to build affordable housing in Massachusetts takes on added significance now, as housing advocates wait for a decision on a landmark case in front of the Supreme Court that concerns where low-income housing projects are placed. The case, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, arose when a nonprofit housing group sued Texas, arguing that the state primarily distributed tax credits for low-income housing projects in minority-dominated areas. Inclusive Communities argued that doing so perpetuated segregation and violated the Fair Housing Act, which was passed in 1968 to prevent landlords, municipalities, banks and other housing providers from discriminating on the basis of race. The Supreme Court case centers on whether this discrimination has to be intentional in order to be illegal, or whether the Fair Housing Act also seeks to prevent policies that may not be intentionally discriminatory, but that have a “disparate impact” on minorities…

Many affordable housing units in the suburbs are a direct result of court cases, and even enforcement of those programs are lax. In 2009, Westchester County in New York signed a desegregation agreement and agreed to build and market hundreds of apartments for moderate-income minorities after a court found it had misled HUD by applying for funds that it said it would use to integrate housing, and then did the opposite. Four years later, the county had not complied with the provisions.

The shift from discriminatory race-based housing policies to economic ones in the 1960s and 1970s was an important one. I suggest reading David Freund’s Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America. This is the logic still used today: better off residents argue that they worked hard to get to their higher quality of life and that others should have to do the same. But, since race/ethnicity and social class are inextricably linked, keeping out the lower classes through big lots, expensive properties, a lack of apartments, and other methods leads perpetuates residential segregation.

Two other relevant points from this article. First, affordable housing in the suburbs can be done well through good design and not high levels of concentration. Second, given the resistance to such projects as well as design guidelines that are helpful, still nowhere near enough affordable housing has been constructed. In one sense, the foot draggers of wealthy communities are winning because they have slowed down a process started by the courts in the late 1960s (the Gautreaux case) and 1970s (the Mount Laurel case). Plus, the wealthy can move easily if their properties are threatened.

Removing suburban strip clubs using zoning, eminent domain, and lawsuits

The typical suburb doesn’t welcome strip clubs but it can be difficult to remove them:

Kane County Board members voted — twice — to say that’s exactly what they don’t want. Those votes spawned a $16 million lawsuit by the pending new owners of the club. The outcome may determine the future of the strip club or any adult businesses in the county. As others have discovered, limiting an industry protected by the Constitution but rife with criminals, violence and deep pockets can be a long, costly road…

Neighboring DuPage County found Diamonds wasn’t its best friend when strip club owners became interested in an industrial area near the DuPage County Airport in 1999. Before the county even ruled on the zoning use, the would-be owners of the club, Palmetto Properties Inc., sued the county for creating unconstitutional restrictions…

After three years of research, the county crafted a legal defense for buffers by citing fears about strip clubs fueling crime and killing property values and development. The county also shrank the buffer between strip clubs and inaccessible sections of forest preserves, allowing Diamonds to open…

Having robust development has also limited where strip clubs can operate. Every commercial development and residential rooftop pushes areas for strip clubs farther out…

Neither did Bedford Park, a South suburban community of about 600 people, when it tried to block Diaz from opening a strip club within its borders. After more than six years in courtrooms, and about $400,000 in legal fees, the new Ocean Gentlemen’s Club opens this fall.

An interesting back and forth between businesses and suburban communities. A few quick thoughts:

1. If this was left to a referendum for voters, how many strip clubs would be approved? For those who approve of property rights (a topic that often comes up with teardowns), how many would also vote for strip clubs (and be consistent in their support of property owners)?

2. One note from the article on how to effectively word local regulations: “The court found the law did not infringe upon free speech because it did not ban adult expression, a key factor in successfully worded zoning laws restricting adult businesses across the country.” Thus, communities have to be very careful in order not to leave loopholes.

3. For clubs that already exist, it sounds like the most effective way to remove them is to find evidence of criminal or illegal activity.