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The K & B Blog

Know Your Rights and Responsibilities: Navigating Surface Water Runoff Disputes

Know Your Rights and Responsibilities: Navigating Surface Water Runoff Disputes

The Spring and Summer months usually bring substantial rainfall to Wisconsin. While this rain supports the growth of our home gardens and yards, it can also lead to unforeseen disputes between neighbors. Let’s say your neighbors just landscaped to create a large patio, but in the process they altered the natural slope of the land in their yard. When rain fell on your neighbors’ yard in the past, it simply soaked into their grass and stayed near their house. Ever since their new construction project, however, rain that falls on your neighbors’ new patio runs directly into your yard and accumulates near your house. As another example, perhaps you lived for many years next to a vacant lot and experienced little to no flooding issues. All of a sudden, a new owner buys the vacant lot next door and begins construction of a new home. As part of the construction project, your new neighbor has numerous loads of fill trucked onto their property, which artificially increases the elevation of their lot with respect to yours. These types of issues, over time, could cause several kinds of damage to your property, such as foundation issues, flooding, or perhaps even mold. This damage likely costs money you were not prepared to spend and can cause uncomfortable conflicts in your neighborly relationships.

There are a few legal rules that apply to these situations that you should familiarize yourself with before taking the issue up with your neighbor. For many years, Wisconsin followed the “common enemy” rule of surface water runoff. This rule permitted landowners to do virtually whatever they wanted to alter the topography of their land, with no legal consequence, even if those alterations changed the natural flow of the surface water and damaged neighboring properties.

Fortunately for property owners who have been harmed in a situation like this, Wisconsin has dispensed with the “common enemy” rule and has instead adopted the “natural flow” rule. This rule holds a person who alters the natural flow of surface water runoff accountable for any damages caused to neighboring property. This rule has two practical considerations: (1) As the neighbor with damaged property, you may have a legal claim against the neighbor who altered the topography of the land; and (2) As a neighbor who plans to undertake a landscaping project, you should carefully consider the alterations you want to make and perhaps even consult with professionals when necessary, so you do not unintentionally alter the natural flow of surface water runoff. Taking extra care in the planning stage of the project may save you considerable time, money, and your relationships with your neighbors.

If you find yourself in an unfortunate situation like those described above, consult with an experienced attorney at Kelly & Brand, Attorneys at Law, LLC today to explore all of the legal options available to you.