Ontario neighbour dispute over woodstove gets heated

A wood-burning stove is pictured in this stock photo by Getty Images.
A wood-burning stove is pictured in this stock photo by Getty Images.

The saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” was certainly the case in this bitter Ontario neighbour feud that was sparked by a woodstove.

Randy Bullock took his neighbours to small claims court in a dispute over their stove, which Bullock claimed emanated obnoxious smoke and odours.

The court noted the defendants — Carol and Ed Earls — have operated this stove for decades with long periods of no complaints from Bullock. He was also the only neighbour to ever complain about the smoke.

The issue at heart is this: did the woodstove constitute a nuisance, which interfered with Bullock’s right to enjoy his property? More specifically though, did the stove cause a nuisance to the plaintiff?

Bullock and the Earls had been neighbours for decades. Bullock bought the property next to the Earls in 1986 and they had a good relationship for years. Bullock, who works as a certified roofing contractor, parked his white work vehicles in his driveway and started noticing black marks on his vehicles that he attributed to the Earl’s woodstove.

Bullock complained to the Earls that he believed the black marks were caused by smoke from their stove. In response, the Earls installed a new steel chimney.

Bullock said that did not get rid of the problem and believed the problems with the woodstove were caused by the winds and the design of the home, which he claimed causes smoke to drift between the two houses. He also said the defendants were burning paper and garbage in their woodstove, which emanated a terrible odour and bad smoke. However, the court wasn’t satisfied that was true.

The court, however, noted there were long periods between complaints. It also observed the defendants tried to do what they could when Bullock complained about their woodstove. After he filed the lawsuit, the Earls put in an extension to their chimney and invested in a chimney cap, which promoted efficient burning and got rid of particulate.

Bullock was not satisfied by anything the Earls did though. The Earls claimed his true anger lies over a boundary dispute between the neighbours and not the woodstove.

The plaintiff brought more than 100 pictures to try to prove his claim, but the court boiled the issue down to the following test for “private nuisance”:

  1. Was the owner’s interference with use or enjoyment of land substantial?
  2. Was the owner’s interference with use or enjoyment of land unreasonable?

Both conditions have to be met to prove a claim for private nuisance. The court clarified that substantial interference with property means that it’s interference that is “non-trivial” — it has to be serious interference with the use or enjoyment of land and frequency plays a factor as well.

The problem for the plaintiff was that the court did not believe the odour and particles were a regular occurrence and he didn’t prove there was substantial interference in the enjoyment of or ability to use his property.

The court didn’t dispute that there was “likely” some smoke, ash and soot that traveled onto Bullocks property, but it wasn’t enough to meet the threshold of “substantial interference.”

Another problem the court found was that it took 20 years for Bullock to raise a legal ruckus over the smoke.

In the end, the court dismissed Bullock’s claim and it’s likely his relationship with the Earls will continue to smolder.

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