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Errichetti v. Botoff

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

October 2, 2018

MICHAEL ERRICHETTI
v.
DANIEL BOTOFF ET AL.

          Argued May 16, 2018

         Procedural History

         Action for an injunction precluding the defendants from erecting a fence, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk and tried to the court, Heller, J.; judgment for the plaintiff, from which the defendants appealed to this court; thereafter, the court, Jacobs, J., granted the defendants' motion for a stay of the judgment pending appeal. Affirmed.

          Patrick M. Fahey, with whom, on the brief, was Matthew Ranelli, for the appellants (defendants).

          John R. Harness, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Lavine, Moll and Bishop, Js.

          OPINION

          MOLL, J.

         This case is about a so-called ‘‘spite fence'' erected along the border between two residential properties in Greenwich. The defendants, Daniel Botoff and Laura Botoff, appeal from the trial court's judgment rendered in favor of the plaintiff, Michael Errichetti, entering an injunction pursuant to General Statutes § 52-480, [1] which required the defendants to remove the fence that they had constructed on their property and to restore the surrounding area. On appeal, the defendants claim that the court erred by (1) finding the second and third elements of § 52-480 satisfied, namely, a malicious erection of the structure and the intention to injure the enjoyment of the adjacent landowner's property, and (2) ordering the defendants to restore the area in which the fence was erected to its previous condition. We disagree, and, accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The trial court found the following facts that are relevant to this appeal. To aid the reader, we include from a trial exhibit (plaintiff's exhibit 5) a diagram of the properties at issue. ‘‘B'' identifies the defendants' property; ‘‘E'' identifies the plaintiff's property.

         (Image Omitted)

         Since 1993, the plaintiff and his wife have owned and resided at a property located at 86 Rockwood Lane in Greenwich. In 2011, the defendants purchased, and have since resided at, a property located at 5 Dogwood Lane in Greenwich. Both properties are located in a two acre zoning district. Part of the defendants' backyard abuts part of the plaintiff's yard that lies to the north of his house. The defendants' property is bounded to the northeast by property belonging to the Betters, to the west by property belonging to the Zorthians, and to the south by both the plaintiff's property and property belonging to the plaintiff's neighbor to the west, the Mickleys. The parties share a common boundary of 160 feet. In 2014, the defendants built a wooden stockade style fence along a 103 foot portion of this 160 foot boundary.[2]

         At trial, the plaintiff described the area surrounding his home. The trial court found that to the northwest of the plaintiff's house is a ‘‘natural wooded area, most of which is wetlands, '' that covers part of the plaintiff's, the defendants', the Zorthians', and the Mickleys' properties. The wooded area creates a forty to sixty foot buffer between the parties' properties. A stream flows through this area on its way to Long Island Sound, and an old farmer's wall runs along the parties' shared boundary. The parties' properties each slope up from the stream to their respective homes. In 2004, the plaintiff and his wife renovated their house so that several main rooms offered views of the wooded area. According to the plaintiff, prior to the erection of the fence, he had ‘‘felt that his yard was very tranquil and beautiful'' and ‘‘that he would not have purchased [his] property if the fence had been there already.''

         After purchasing the property in 2011, the defendants immediately began renovating the house. According to Laura Botoff's testimony, when she and her husband bought the property, they discussed erecting a fence and potentially installing a pool but decided to complete the work in phases for financial reasons. In 2012, after completing the renovations to the house, they began a landscaping project ‘‘to make sure that [the backyard] was safe for their young sons.'' When the defendants began the landscaping project, they had the property staked for a fence. Laura Botoff testified that she and her husband believed that a fence would provide them with privacy and security, but they did not erect the fence for another two years after having it staked. During this period, the relationship between the parties deteriorated.

         At trial, the parties testified about a few interactions they had concerning their shared boundary. According to the plaintiff, in the spring of 2012, he saw the defendants' landscaping project expanding into the wooded area between his and the defendants' homes. Assuming that the defendants had not received the proper approvals from the Greenwich Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency (agency), the plaintiff walked over to the defendants' house, introduced himself to Laura Botoff, and explained that she should contact the agency before proceeding with the project. Laura Botoff's recounting of the interaction differs. She testified that he approached her, without first identifying himself, to question her about the nonexistence of wetlands flags.

         The next notable incident occurred in 2014, when the plaintiff noticed Laura Botoff walking along their shared boundary with a man who appeared to be measuring for a fence. The plaintiff testified that he went outside to ask Laura Botoff whether they were measuring for a fence and that, when she responded that they were, he reminded her that she needed approval from the agency before building anything in the wetlands. According to the plaintiff, Laura Botoff became agitated, at which point the plaintiff left and called the agency to report the defendants' plans for a fence. Again, Laura Botoff's recollection differs. According to her testimony, she calmly explained that she understood that she could build the fence as long as she received the proper permits, and, after the plaintiff returned to his house, she called the Greenwich Police Department to file a complaint. Shortly after this incident, the defendants applied to the agency for a permit to build the fence. The agency issued the permit over the plaintiff's opposition.[3]

         In June, 2014, the plaintiff commenced the underlying action, seeking injunctive relief pursuant to § 52-480. In August, 2014, the defendants installed the fence. In February, 2017, following a two day bench trial, at which all parties and their respective expert appraisers testified, the court rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff and against the defendants. In its memorandum of decision, the court found that the plaintiff had met his burden of proof with respect to his claim under § 52-480 and, as injunctive relief, ordered the defendants to remove the fence and to restore the surrounding area to its previous condition. This appeal followed. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

         I

         On appeal, the defendants first claim that the court erroneously determined that the plaintiff was entitled to an injunction pursuant to § 52-480. Specifically, they argue that the court, in determining that the defendants had erected the fence maliciously and with the intent to injure the plaintiff's enjoyment of his land, relied on clearly erroneous subordinate findings, namely, that the fence is useless, impairs the plaintiff's enjoyment of his property, and is out of character with the ...


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