Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Law of Neighbors
Originally uploaded at SSRN.
A fundamental characteristic of real property law, one that is definitional in nature, is that its subject matter consists of land parcels. A land parcel, in contrast to an ownership interest such as a fee simple estate, is not an abstraction. Each land parcel has a physical reality, and virtually all land parcels abut other parcels. Each parcel has one particular location, defined by its proximity to other pieces of property. The value of a land parcel depends heavily upon its location, and the nature of neighboring parcels has a major impact in determining that value.
Owners of neighboring parcels have sets of rights, privileges, and duties that define their legal relationships with neighbors. In Anglo-American law, those rights, privileges, and duties are components of real property law, but they are not a recognized category of real property law. Rather, they represent the application of general doctrines and rules to neighbors, instead of a distinct and cohesive body of law of its own. Other legal systems have developed distinct bodies of law to govern relations among neighbors.
The law of neighbors or “neighborhood law” is not presently a recognized type of law practice in the United States, and it will not likely become one anytime in the near future. In part this is the case because neighbor law disputes typically do not involve high financial stakes and resulting incentives for lawyers to market themselves as experts in the area. This Article suggests that if the field of neighbor law develops in the United States, academics will have to lead the way.
This Article does three things. First, it introduces the “stranger model” and the “friend model” of neighbors law, using these models as a frame for describing three components of existing U.S. law applicable to neighboring landowners. Second, it briefly describes the extent to which South Africa and Scotland have come to describe neighbors law as a discrete legal category, which correlates to the stranger model and friend model. Third, it concludes by making several suggestions on how the models may help in the construction of a coherent law of neighbors.