Neighbor Disputes: Do You Have a Spite Fence?

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Though at one time or another you might have wished there was a large wall between you and an annoying neighbor, most likely you didn’t act on this desire. Not everyone is so good about controlling their unneighborly impulses, however, and the result can be an eyesore called a spite fence. Robert Frost wrote that, “Good fences make good neighbors”, but in the case of a spite fence, that’s not as true.

What is a Spite Fence?

A “spite fence” is defined as an overly tall fence that is installed purely to annoy a neighbor. Usually the result of a dispute, a spite fence frequently leads to legal action, and can sometimes result in violence. Spite fences can be made of wood, concrete, tall trees or hedges, or even unusual items such as toilet bowls or water heaters. Spite fences might be painted with ugly patterns, covered with mirrors, or intentionally made ugly enough to reduce property values in the entire neighborhood.

Legal Issues of a Spite Fence

Many residential areas have specific ordinances regarding the style and height of fences and walls, in part as a response to the problem of spite fences. A very common property fence guideline is six feet tall for backyards, four feet tall in the front of the house. Depending on the town’s building codes, fences might have to be made of certain materials, or in a certain style or color.

City ordinances regarding fence height make it easier to protest a neighbor’s angry gesture in erecting a spite fence, but in areas without such restrictions, it can be difficult to win a legal battle with a neighbor. Usually, the complaining neighbor must prove the other neighbor put up the fence out of spite, and that the fence serves no useful purpose to the owner other than maliciously bothering the neighbor. It’s not easy to prove that in court, and the feuding neighbors can drag legal proceedings out for years, or even escalate to violent confrontations.

It’s always best to keep relations friendly with your neighbors, if at all possible. Talk to them about potential annoyances or disagreements before things get out of hand, and strive to keep communications open and agreeable. Resorting to a spite fence, or any other overtly hostile act, is guaranteed to increase the cycle of retaliation.

Crocker’s Spite Fence

One of the most infamous spite fence cases happened in San Francisco in the late 1800s. Nicholas Yung, a German immigrant, built a home on the then isolated Nob Hill. Yung established a successful mortuary business, and his home on Nob Hill offered a beautiful view of the city. However, in 1878, the cable car line was established, and Nob Hill quickly became the center of the most exclusive real estate in San Francisco.

Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins, two of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad, built luxurious mansions on the Hill. This inspired Charles Crocker, another of the founders of the railroad, to build an even larger house higher up Nob Hill, where he could look down on his rivals and impress the entire city below. Crocker desired to buy the entire city block bounded by Sacramento, California, Jones and Taylor streets. The only flaw in Crocker’s plan was that the home of Nicholas Yung was in the northeast corner of the block.

Crocker offered Yung $6,000 for his lot, but Yung refused, and requested $12,000. This angered Crocker, who by now owned all the rest of the block, and he retaliated by grading all the land around Yung’s house down severely, leaving Yung’s home perched as if on a pedestal. Crocker even had the workers using dynamite to level the land, so the flying dirt and debris was aimed right at Yung’s house. Crocker then began construction on his mansion, an enormous, elaborately designed home typical of the wealthiest Victorian-era businessmen. As the construction progressed, the animosity between the men grew. Desperate to get the final northeast corner of the lot, Crocker made one last offer, but Yung again refused.

Enraged, Crocker paid $3,000, a very large sum of money for that time, to construct a 40-foot high fence tightly wrapped around three sides of Yung’s home. Only the northern front of the house was left open to receive light. The fence was so high; it required extensive wooden braces to hold it upright. The Yung family appealed to the courts, but Charles Crocker held far too much sway in the city, and the fence was left in place. The Yung’s home became dark and oppressive, and they had to light candles to see even during the day.

Quickly dubbed “Crocker’s Spite Fence”, the monstrosity became one of the most popular sightseeing attractions in the city. The people of San Francisco were disgusted and enraged with Crocker, seeing him as a power-hungry tyrant oppressing the “little men” of the town. Even the city newspapers referred to the fence as “Crocker’s Crime.”

Despite all this, the fence stayed put. The Yung family still refused to sell, but moved away, leaving their house vacant. At this point, Crocker lowered the fence’s height to 25 feet, but it stayed in place. By 1904, both Charles Crocker and Nicholas Yung had died, but Crocker’s Crime was still standing. Finally, children of the Yung family sold the lot to children of the Crocker family, and at last, Crocker’s Spite Fence was torn down. Just two years later, the San Francisco earthquake struck, and the subsequent fire completely destroyed the Crocker mansion.

Ironically, the Crocker family donated the land to the Episcopal Church, and today the former site of the Crocker mansion and the most famous spite fence ever built is home to Grace Cathedral, a famed and beautiful church of the Episcopal Diocese of California.

While you are unlikely ever to encounter a neighbor as vindictive as Charles Crocker, you may at times have disputes and disagreements with your neighbors. Meet with them to talk things out, and try to come to a reasonable compromise. A spite fence should never be the solution to a problem.

Last Updated: June 28, 2012
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About Michelle Ullman Michelle Ullman has lived and gardened in Southern California since childhood. A freelance writer, she covers topics ranging from gardening and home improvement to health issues. She also has experience as a catalog copywriter and poet. Michelle has trained and worked as a respiratory therapist and surgical technologist, but prefers to spend her time gardening, and walking with her dog. Michelle holds a Bachelor's Degree from Redlands University in Business Management. 

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