Turning Neighbors into Nuisances
74 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2021 Last revised: 11 Jun 2021
Date Written: March 10, 2021
A reckoning for single-family zoning is underway. From Minnesota to California, cities and states are looking for ways to compel the densification of neighborhoods long devoted to large lots and detached homes. The bitter debates occasioned by these efforts expose a common source of homeowner opposition: worries about multifamily housing and, specifically, the apartment building. In that regard, little about land use law seems to have changed. The apartment was cited as an evil in the case that upheld zoning as a legitimate use of the state’s regulatory power nearly a century ago. Beginning the story there, however, misses an important chapter. For decades prior, judges routinely declined to consider apartments undesirable neighboring uses that existing owners could prevent through private law. The legal history of the apartment demonstrates the important interplay between private forms of land use law — nuisance and deed restrictions or covenants — and the ways that these private land use controls influence the evolution of public regulation.
This Article uses a forgotten period in urban development to illustrate the critical interactions among forms of private and public law in identifying the proper subjects of land use control. In the early nineteenth century, a tool blending contract and tort proliferated: the nuisance covenant, a promise transmitted through deeds not to engage in specific noxious uses — an expanding list ranging from slaughterhouses to circuses to tenements — or any use deemed noxious in the future. This innovation offered benefits over covenant and nuisance law independently, as drafters were able to tailor the definition of nuisance while preserving flexibility to prevent unanticipated activities. And yet, the arrival of the apartment exposed the strong pull of traditional nuisance law: judges were hesitant to interpret restrictions to ban this new form of housing associated with the middle and upper classes. Lawyers and developers worked to identify apartments as problematic through newly drafted covenants and the concept of near-nuisance, paralleling arguments that would reemerge decades later as the proponents of zoning contended that it was within the state’s police power to limit apartment construction. Nuisance and covenant law influenced how judges and other parties came to see uses as harmful and anticipated debates about the appropriate scope of regulation. This dialogue between private and public law is echoing in the twenty-first century, and private law continues to form an important, lurking limitation on land use reform.
Keywords: property, land use law, police power, Euclid, zoning, private law, covenants, nuisance, legal history, deed restrictions
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