With ocean views at stake, B.C. man snuck onto neighbour’s multimillion-dollar property to cut tops off trees

VANCOUVER — A West Vancouver homeowner has been ordered by a B.C. court to keep off his neighbour’s property and pay her $48,000 after he cut the tops off of her cedar trees.

The ruling follows a multi-year spat between two families who lived next door to each other in newly-constructed homes with private outdoor swimming pools and ocean views, both located on multimillion-dollar properties in one of Canada’s wealthiest postal codes.

Erminia Minicucci had her home custom-built in a residential area of a West Vancouver hillside with plans to stay for the long term and retire there, read court documents. But with her neighbours, Yang Liu and Ying Liang, also building their home on the lot above hers, she worried about her privacy. So in July 2017, Minicucci paid landscapers $38,000 to plant 28 trees along the property line she shared with Liu and Liang.

Nearly a year later, Liu complained to Minicucci and her husband that the trees, a mix of 10-foot tall and 25-foot tall cedars – which had by then grown by three feet – were interfering with the view from his three-storey home. Liu asked if he could trim the trees. The Minicucci’s said no.

“These parties are neighbours who live side-by-side in a suburban area where there are ocean and city views at stake,” reads the ruling from BC Supreme Court justice Elizabeth McDonald.

Liu didn’t take the Minicucci’s no for an answer. Instead, when his neighbours were on vacation in the summer of 2018, he snuck onto their property with a ladder and lopped the tops off “numerous” trees, says the ruling.

When the Minicucci’s returned, the husband, Mr. Minicucci, went over to speak with the neighbours. The wife, Liang, claimed they’d received permission from the city to trim the trees. But as the judge noted in her ruling, that was “untrue.”

The Minicuccis took photographs of the scene and called in their arborist to inspect the damage. The arborist noted that the tree-tops had been taken off and that “there were still cuttings on the ground,” reads the ruling. She also concluded the cedars had been permanently damaged and would now be focused on growing outwards rather than upwards.

The Minicuccis installed two security cameras overlooking their trees and hired a company to monitor them.

The aggrieved couple also had their lawyer send Liu and Liang a letter, to which Liu replied with further tree-trimming threats.

Liu would “trim the trees over the fence and send [Mr. Minicucci] the bill,” he wrote in his Sept. 17 email.

The Minicuccis decided to sue. In October, two weeks after receiving Liu’s email, they filed a B.C. civil lawsuit seeking damages.

In it they claimed that the “aesthetic value of the trees has been substantially and permanently altered,” and that they had “lost the privacy” that trees gave until they grew back to their original height.

The family also said they’d “suffered considerable stress and anxiety” due to Liu’s actions, and feared that he would come back and cut their trees again. The conflict had “significantly diminished (Erminia Minicucci’s) enjoyment of her home and yard,” and she considered moving, even though she’d been planning to stay long-term, reads the ruling.

“(Erminia Minicucci) began to fear leaving her home and she worried about her daughter being home alone.”

Seven months later, in 2019, Liang and Liu filed a counterclaim. In it, Liang admitted it was wrong to trim the trees but claimed he’d done so out of frustration with his neighbours for another issue: a pipe was emitting steam from the Minicucci’s boiler and it bothered him. He also claimed that the security cameras that the Minicucci’s had installed to overlook the trees also captured parts of his yard, and interfered with his privacy.

The boiler steam pipe issue dated back to 2017. At the time, Liu had been concerned that the location of the Minicucci’s boiler pipe would cause water damage to their own home, and suggested it be relocated to their roof. The Minicuccis arranged for the pipe to be fixed. But instead of rerouting the pipe and its steam to their roof (which their contractor said would create “visual clutter”), they had it extended, so that the boiler steam would release further away from their house. As the ruling notes, this meant the pipe was now closer to Liu and Liang’s house.

Liu and Liang claimed that the steam contained natural gas emissions that “wafted towards their home forcing them to keep their patio doors and windows closed and preventing their children from playing on their front driveway,” reads the ruling.

The smell was so bad, they said, that it “could be smelled from inside his home and from the front driveway of his home.”

But the judge dismissed Liu’s claims, noting that he never described the odour in his counterclaim, that he hadn’t mentioned any odour when the Minicuccis’ contractor consulted with him before relocating the pipe, and that an expert contractor confirmed such pipes only emit steam.

“I find that the defendants’ claim for nuisance associated with the discharge from the boiler pipe is prompted by excessive delicacy and fastidiousness,” the judge wrote.

As for the cameras, Liu and Liang claimed that the backyard camera, “with its red light indicator, was plainly visible” by them and their guests from their yard. Therefore, they claimed it was a violation of their privacy.

The judge also dismissed the complaints about the security cameras and found the Minicuccis had done their best to angle the cameras so they only recorded the trees. Furthermore, the cameras were a reasonable response to Liu having trespassed on their property.

The ruling also states that the Minicucci’s took down their camera and rerouted the boiler steam pipe after Liu filed his counterclaim.

On Aug. 20, 2021 the judge ordered Liu and Liang to pay $18,175 in general and special damages and another $30,000 in punitive damages, plus interest. They were also ordered not to enter their neighbour’s property, to contact them, or meddle with anything located on their property.

But, it appears that Liu and Liang may have moved. The property, described in the court ruling as being above and adjacent to the Minicucci’s, sold for $6.3 million in April of this year, according to B.C.’s land assessment registry. A sales video for the home shows an ocean view from a living room with a few tree-tops ever so slightly peeking up.

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