If it’s Not Dangerous, It May Not Be a Nuisance

Many Pennsylvania municipalities have enacted ordinances that ban property owners from permitting “nuisances” to exist on their property. A typical nuisance ordinance defines nuisances as conditions that could damage, inconvenience, or annoy the owner’s neighbors.

Nuisance ordinances often forbid property owners to keep abandoned or junked vehicles on their property. The ordinances can require the cleanup and removal of junk, debris, trash, and burned buildings. Municipalities sometimes define abandoned or junked vehicles to include any vehicle that is not registered and insured.

In a recent case, a borough ordered several homeowners to remove unregistered, un inspected, and uninsured vehicles from their residential properties. The homeowners refused. On appeal to the commonwealth court, the home owner’s won.

The commonwealth court noted that the borough and the home owners agreed that the properties were well maintained, regularly mowed, and neat. But one homeowner had five junk vehicles on his residential property; the other had 15 vehicles on his residential property. The borough insisted that the presence of the vehicles constituted a public nuisance.

The borough conceded that the homeowners had hired an inspector who issued a report that both properties were free of “vermin and noxious pests.’ In addition, a certified mechanic hired by the homeowners had inspected the vehicles and issued a report that none was leaking any substances or otherwise creating any environmental hazards. The borough also conceded that it had no proof of any actual danger caused by the vehicles, But because the vehicles were unregistered and uninsured, the borough insisted that they were nuisance vehicles and had to be removed.

The commonwealth court found that Pennsylvania law on nuisances has long required that municipal ordinances may not declare conditions to be automatic nuisances. Instead, all municipalities must prove actual danger, public harm, or health risks arising from claimed nuisances. Ordinances can define nuisance vehicles as any vehicles that are not registered and insured. But in order to demand that a homeowner remove such vehicles from his or her property, municipalities must prove that an actual nuisance exists. Where the abandoned vehicles include broken parts, harbor animals, or have attracted children, the municipality may be entitled to demand removal. Likewise, outdoor junk, debris, or burned-out structures are subject to local municipal enforcement if they cause actual dangers.

If you are concerned about a neighbor’s property that is unsightly, you won’t succeed in enforcing local nuisance ordinances unless you can prove the existence of an actual nuisance.  If you keep an abandoned vehicles or a large collection of personal property outdoors on your property, or if you have dilapidated buildings on your property, you are obliged to prevent the development of dangerous conditions.



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