If a jurisdiction is going to regulate nuisances, it first has to identify what constitutes a nuisance. The other part of the question is why control them.
The definition of a nuisance has to be specific enough to be legally enforceable. The basic definitions contained in the state nuisance statutes can provide a starting point. Though many local governments adopt these definitions, they often supplement them with their own wording. Local ordinances also usually contain a list of specific activities or conditions that constitute a nuisance.
This page answers the question, "why control nuisances?", and provides the basic statutory definitions of a nuisance as well as a few local ordinance examples. For more information on this topic, see the MRSC's main Nuisances webpage.
Why Control Nuisances?
Controlling nuisances keeps communities safe and livable. The degree of control depends on how citizens perceive their community. Most Washington local governments include a goal of protecting the environment and enhancing quality of life in their community vision statements. Creation of a sense of place and community pride are also part of this vision. Issues of property maintenance -- the accumulation of junk vehicles, vehicle storage, overgrown vegetation, litter and other visual clutter are seen as a deterioration of the quality of life.
The existence of dilapidated buildings, unkempt streets and property overgrown with vegetation are associated with areas of high crime and deteriorating property values. The enforcement of nuisance codes, campaigns to cleanup of property, and beautification efforts are part of crime prevention and economic development activities. The physical condition of neighborhoods and business districts can show ownership, care, and purposeful maintenance, or it can convey the message that an area may be vulnerable to crime, violence and drug trafficking. Most community-based crime prevention programs include property maintenance activities such as periodic clean-up days and are often accompanied by beautification programs.
The preservation and enhancement of the quality of life is universally held as an attainable, measurable goal. Quality of life indicators and performance measures for government services include such items as: the percentage of streets rated acceptably clean; percentage of surfaces where there is little or no graffiti; percentage of nuisance violations corrected; ratio of enforcement actions taken to hours devoted to proactive patrol; number and percent of sites where weeds were abated; and percent weed lot violations corrected by owners. Other indicators include the monitoring of air and water quality conditions.
Definitions of Nuisance
In very general terms, a nuisance is something that annoys - a wearing on the nerves by a persistent unpleasantness. It can evoke anger and interfere with comfort and peace of mind. In a regulatory environment, the term "nuisance" embraces anything that results in an invasion of one's legal rights. A nuisance involves an unreasonable or unlawful use of property that results in material annoyance, inconvenience, discomfort, or injury to another person or to the public. The unlawful use may involve doing something (example: piling garbage on residential property) or failing to do something (example: cutting or removing noxious weeds from residential property). Common nuisances include the accumulation of junk, animals, noise, dangerous buildings, sewage and unsanitary conditions, and encroachments on the public right-of-way that interfere with pedestrian passage.
Nuisances are sometimes called nuisances because they are remedied by abatement. The words abate and abatement are the legal terms used to describe the process for putting an end to, or terminating the nuisance.
Court Definitions of Nuisance
In its deliberations over Riblet v. Spokane-Portland Cement Company, 41 Wn.2d 249, 254 (1952), the state supreme court asked and responded to the question, "What is a nuisance?" The court stated:
Our basic point of inquiry relates to the general theory of the law of nuisance. This appears primarily to be based upon generally accepted ideas of right, equity, and justice. The thought is inherent that not even a fee simple owner has a totality of rights in and with respect to his real property. In so far as the law of nuisance is concerned, rights as to the usage of land are relative. The general legal principle to be inferred from court action in nuisance cases is that one landowner will not be permitted to use his land so unreasonably as to interfere unreasonably with another landowner's use and enjoyment of his land.
The crux of the matter appears to be reasonableness. Admittedly, the term is a flexible one. It has many shades and varieties of meaning. In a nuisance case, the fundamental inquiry always appears to be whether the use of certain land can be considered as reasonable in relation to all the facts and surrounding circumstances.
Application of the doctrine of nuisance requires a balancing of rights, interests, and convenience.
Statutes Defining Nuisances
In Washington, there are two sets of statutes that deal with nuisances: Chapter 7.48 RCW pertains to civil procedures for abating nuisances and Chapter 9.66 RCW pertains to criminal procedures for abating nuisances. The following are the statutory definitions of nuisances from these chapters:
- RCW 7.48.120 - Nuisance Defined
Nuisance consists in unlawfully doing an act, or omitting to perform a duty, which act or omission either annoys, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health or safety of others, offends decency, or unlawfully interferes with, obstructs or tends to obstruct, or render dangerous for passage, any lake or navigable river, bay, stream, canal or basin, or any public park, square, street or highway; or in any way renders other persons insecure in life, or in the use of property. (Note to reader --RCW 7.48.120 has not been amended since 1881.)
- RCW 9.66.010 - Public Nuisance
A public nuisance is a crime against the order and economy of the state. Every place:
(1) Wherein any fighting between people or animals or birds shall be conducted; or,
(2) Wherein any intoxicating liquors are kept for unlawful use, sale or distribution; or,
(3) Where vagrants resort; and
Every act unlawfully done and every omission to perform a duty, which act or omission:
(1) Shall annoy, injure or endanger the safety, health, comfort, or repose of any considerable number of persons; or,
(2) Shall offend public decency; or,
(3) Shall unlawfully interfere with, befoul, obstruct, or tend to obstruct, or render dangerous for passage, a lake, navigable river, bay, stream, canal or basin, or a public park, square, street, alley, highway, or municipal transit vehicle or station; or,
(4) Shall in any way render a considerable number of persons insecure in life or the use of property;
Shall be a public nuisance.
Local Government Provisions Defining Nuisances
- Lynnwood Municipal Code Sec. 16.08.210 - Definitions
F. “Nuisance” includes:
1. A nuisance defined by statute or ordinance;
2. A nuisance at common law either public or private;
3. An attractive nuisance, whether in or on a building, a building premises or an unoccupied lot and whether realty, fixture or chattel, which might reasonably be expected to attract children of tender years and constitute a danger to them; including, but not limited to, abandoned wells, ice boxes or refrigerators with doors and latches, shafts, basements or other excavations, abandoned or inoperative vehicles or other equipment, structurally unsound fences or other fixtures, lumber, fencing, vegetation or other debris;
4. Uncleanliness or whatever is dangerous to human life or detrimental to health; or
5. Abandonment or vacancy.
- Pierce County Code Sec. 8.08.040 - Public Nuisance Defined
A public nuisance consists of performing an unlawful act, or omitting to perform a duty, or
permitting an action or condition to occur or exist which:
A. Unreasonably annoys, injures, or endangers the comfort, repose, health, or safety of
B. Unlawfully interferes with, obstructs or tends to obstruct or renders dangerous for passage any lake, or navigable river, bay, stream, canal or basin, or any public property, open spaces, parks, or public right-of-way in the County; or
C. Renders other persons insecure in life or in the use of property; or
D. Creates, maintains, or permits the existence or continuance of any of the specific public nuisances identified in this Chapter.
- Spokane Municipal Code Sec. 10.02.070 - Nuisance
A. A “nuisance” is the unreasonable or unlawful use by a person of his real or personal property, or the unreasonable, indecent or unlawful personal conduct which materially interferes with or jeopardizes the health, safety, prosperity, quiet enjoyment of property or welfare of others, offends common decency or public morality, or obstructs or interferes with the free use of public ways, places or bodies of water.
B. Nuisance also consists of the specific violations set forth in this title in SMC 10.08.030, SMC 10.08.040, SMC 10.24.040 and SMC 12.02.0202.
- Twisp Municipal Code Sec. 8.05.010 - Conditions constituting a public nuisance.
It is the purpose of this nuisance chapter to prevent and prohibit safety and health hazards that create a menace to the health and welfare of the public and the residents of the town, and to prevent and prohibit those conditions and activities which interfere with the enjoyment of public and private property. Accordingly, any act or omission that unreasonably interferes with another’s use of their land or property, that injures or endangers the health or safety of others, that poses a threat or harm to the life of another or in the use of their property, is hereby declared unlawful and in violation of this nuisance chapter. “Nuisance” includes: (1) a nuisance defined by statute; (2) a nuisance at common law, either public or private; and (3) those specific actions or omissions defined herein; provided, reference to specific acts or omissions is not intended as a limitation on the definition of a nuisance. The following conditions, unless otherwise permitted by law, are declared to constitute a public nuisance in the town:
- Vancouver Municipal Code Sec. 8.20.010 - Nuisance Defined
A nuisance consists in doing an unlawful act, or omitting to perform a duty, or suffering or permitting any condition or thing to be or exist which act or omission, condition or thing either:
(a) Annoys, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health, or safety of others;
(b) Offends decency;
(c) Is offensive to the senses;
(d) Unlawfully interferes with, obstructs or tends to obstruct or renders dangerous for passengers any stream, public park, parkway, square, street or highway in the city of Vancouver;
(e) In any way renders other persons insecure in life or the use of property;
(f) Obstructs the free use of property so as to essentially interfere with the reasonable and comfortable use thereof.
(g) Normal accepted practices of agriculture and mineral resource activities shall not be considered a nuisance unless the activity has a substantial adverse effect on the public health and safety.