What is a Nuisance?
This page addresses the general definition of "nuisances" for local governments in Washington State, including court definitions, statutory definitions, and examples of local definitions.
It is part of MRSC’s series on Nuisances: Regulation and Abatement.
If a jurisdiction is going to regulate nuisances, it first has to define the term. In 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" includes 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 (for example, piling garbage on residential property) or failing to do something (for example, cutting or removing noxious weeds from residential property).
Common nuisances include junk accumulation, animals, noise, dangerous buildings, sewage and unsanitary conditions, and encroachments on the public right-of-way that interfere with pedestrian passage.
Practice Tip: To be enforceable, the definition of “nuisance” has to be specific. 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 (see examples below). Local ordinances also usually contain a list of specific activities or conditions that constitute a 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.
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.
RCW 7.48.120 states:
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: this statute has not been amended since 1881.]
RCW 9.66.010 states:
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.
In addition to the statutory definitions, some local governments have adopted their own definitions of “nuisance.” For instance, see:
- Lynnwood Municipal Code Sec. 16.08.210(F) – Definitions
- Pierce County Code Sec. 8.08.040 – Public Nuisance Defined
- Spokane Municipal Code Sec. 10.02.070 – Nuisance
- Twisp Municipal Code Sec. 8.05.010 – Conditions constituting a public nuisance
- Vancouver Municipal Code Sec. 8.20.010 – Nuisance Defined