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'Vanity logging': Breaking laws in search of a view

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"There was this very nice house that was built in an area where it would have a great view of Whiteside Mountain - if only the neighbor's trees weren't there," says Martin Reidinger, a lawyer in Asheville.

So the owner - a wealthy Atlantan - made some calculations and came to a decision: Cut 'em anyway. After finding the acre's worth of his trees chopped down during a long walk through the woods, the neighbor sued - and won $40,000. But experts estimate that the Atlanta man still came out on top: He increased his property value by at least $100,000. "It happens fairly frequently," says Mr. Reidinger. "Sometimes the cutting is innocent, but other times I think it's very purposeful."

Cutting a view of the Tetons

Not long ago, two disputes arose in Jackson Hole's tony Crescent H Ranch subdivision along the southern end of the Teton Range. The issues seized community attention as they played out in the local newspaper. In one case, a homeowner enlisted loggers to fell two acres of trees on a neighbor's land in order to improve the mountain view. Spurring a public outcry, the instigator ultimately ended up paying a financial settlement with the Jackson Hole Land Trust, which held a conservation easement on the neighbor's tract.

Increasingly, the free-market libertarian politics that thrive in the region and champion a property owner's rights over local regulation have clashed with the notion of almost sacred "viewsheds" that are considered part of the public commons.

Near Monterey, Calif., the local chapter of the Sierra Club went to the defense of the county that had intervened to halt vanity logging being carried out by landowner who desired a more spectacular view. The trees were being cut on land where the county held a "scenic easement."

The homeowner appealed the decision, claiming his actions "did not materially alter the landscape," but he was overruled.

Two years ago, a government planning agency in Nevada brought legal action against residents along Lake Tahoe who cut trees - in some cases, just the tops - to improve their view.

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