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How to resolve neighbor disputes

'Border wars' can lead to uncomfortable situations

Published: November 2013

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Just about anything can spark a border war. Consider the California man who decided to sue his neighbors because their towering redwoods blocked the sunlight from his solar panels. But the following five situations encompass the most likely flash points between neighbors. Here's how to handle them should you find yourself engaged in a neighbor war:

Noisy neighbors
With barking dogs, loud lawn mowers and leaf blowers, and hardy partyers living in most neighborhoods, noise is a leading cause of protracted border wars. To combat the clamor, most communities have laws that prohibit unreasonable noise. They also establish quiet times, such as between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. on weekdays and between midnight and 10 a.m. on weekends. Does your neighbor operate an auto-repair shop from his garage? He may be violating your town's residential zoning code. Check local and state laws before confronting him. And be aware of your own noisemaking—in other words, don't use your blower vac to do fall cleanup at 7 a.m. on a Saturday.

Encroaching trees
Trees get bigger; that's part of their beauty. You can cut back overhanging branches and trim far-reaching roots on your property. But you shouldn't prune a tree in places that will damage it or enough to harm it. Laws against excessive pruning have been made stiffer. And unless you live in Hawaii, you'll probably have to foot the bill for the job. It's best to alert a neighbor before you start cutting. Have a tree service handle high or large branches. And if a trunk straddles property lines, you and your neighbor both own the tree, so you probably need your neighbor's permission to prune.

When one of your or your neighbor's trees is dangerous or unsound, the local government will often intervene, either dealing with the tree or forcing you or your neighbor to act. If your neighbor has ignored a dangerous tree and you need your town to intervene, find out which agency to contact by calling city hall or the county courthouse.If your tree falls on a neighbor's property, you should offer to clean it up even if the law doesn't hold you responsible.

As for leaves, debris, and fruit, if a tree is commonly owned, you and your neighbor share the maintenance as well as the spoils. If the tree is not commonly owned, each of you deal with the debris on your respective properties.

Perilous pools
"Attractive nuisances" are dangerous objects or features that might entice children onto a property and cause them harm. A swimming pool is probably the best example, which is why many states require a minimum 4-foot barrier around your property or pool. But power tools and construction equipment can also tempt children, and you and your neighbor should take responsibility for contractors' actions.

Because of the inherent danger involved with pools and construction gear, it's fine to be aggressive. Quickly check the local law and then approach the neighbor immediately. If the neighbor resists your entreaties, call the police.

Forbidding fences
Good fences make good neighbors. But bad ones "are a huge problem," says Emily Doskow, a Berkeley, Calif., attorney and co-author of "Neighbor Law." Most municipalities have firm rules about fence height, usually limiting backyard fences to 6 feet and front-yard fences to 4 feet. Not necessarily covered is who gets a fence's "good" side. That is, will the attractive side of the fence face your property or your neighbor's? Check with your town's building department to see whether a law exists, or ask neighbors about what's customary in your community. Fences that function as boundary lines between properties and "spite fences" cause the most problems, Doskow says. A spite fence is any tall, imposing fence that's designed to make a neighbor's property disappear from view, or cause that person great annoyance, or both. Many state laws ban fences that have no reasonable purpose.

Unless you and your neighbor agree otherwise, boundary fences are co-owned, which means both of you are responsible for maintenance. If the fence was in place when you bought your home, check your deed or property map to determine whose property the fence is on. For a fee, a local surveyor will restake your property. In some areas, town-appointed "fence viewers" will do a free fence inspection to determine the owner.

If your neighbor is putting up a fence on what you think is your land or is building a spite fence, act quickly. Get an injunction from a court to halt building because judges are often reluctant to order the destruction of standing property. Do the same for garages, garden sheds, and small additions.

Blight on the block
Most neighborhoods have one: a house that's so unkempt that it brings down property values and is a constant source of speculation. ("It must be vacant." "An eccentric billionaire lives there." "Another foreclosure.") Some laws prohibit eyesores like broken windows and defaced facades. Overgrown weeds and piles of garbage are considered a health violation, since they can harbor rodents and insects. And broken-down vehicles parked on the front lawn are usually a violation of local ordinances.

Even if the law is on your side, don't rush to call the authorities. There might be a reason for the neglect, such as an illness in the family. You might want to help out, especially if your neighbor is elderly or too frail to do the work.

What about homeowners who paint their house an outrageous color that's out of character for the area or keep "sculpture" in the front yard? Landmark districts tend to have the firmest rules about what is acceptable and what isn't. And housing associations and planned communities often have Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions, or CCRs, you can check. But in some places, you'll just have to learn to live with the quirkiness next door.

How to resolve a dispute

Stage 1: Diplomacy
Before you do anything, sleep on the problem. If something happens again and again, experts agree that a face-to-face meeting is best—provided the situation is safe. "If the issue is that your neighbor keeps loaded guns lying around or has three pit bulls straining at the leash, I might advise otherwise," says attorney Emily Doskow. But before you meet with your neighbor or attempt to deal with any aspect of the problem, sleep on it. Then pick a convenient time to discuss the issue and "assume that your neighbor isn't aware of the problem and would want to fix it if they were," Doskow adds. Be prepared for a defensive reaction, or even a counterattack. If it comes, respond calmly and sympathetically.

If the friendly approach fails, follow up with the neighbor in writing. Restate the problem and cite any relevant local and state laws. A Google search, with the name of your town and the laws that apply, might lead you to the information. Or go to www.findlaw.com or www.nolo.com/statute/index.cfm. A visit to city hall or your local library could also provide you with the necessary information. And if the problem affects others, ask them to sign the letter too. Sometimes just seeing several signatures can persuade a stubborn neighbor to relent.

Stage 2: Mediation
Mediators, neutral third parties, sit down with feuding neighbors to help them figure out a fair solution to a problem. Their goal is to open the lines of communication, rather than say who's right or wrong. Mediators, many of whom are local volunteers, can be brought in at any stage of a dispute. There are some 400 community-based mediation centers nationwide; services are often free or priced on a sliding scale. To find a mediator, use the state-by-state directory on the website of the National Association for Community Mediation. Or hire a private mediator. Often an attorney, a private mediator will charge higher fees but might be more familiar with the intricacies of the law than a community mediator. To find a private mediator, check the Yellow Pages or go to www.mediate.com.

Stage 3: Litigation
Court is usually the last resort. The process is expensive, and the result is unpredictable. "You don't control the outcome," says Jonathan Rosenthal, executive director of Alternative Dispute Resolution Programs for the District Court of Maryland. "It's entirely up to the judge, who may listen to only certain evidence." Courts often insist that neighbors first try mediation. A middle ground between mediation and regular court is small-claims court. But judges in small-claims courts generally can't prevent your neighbor from undertaking the nuisance behavior or stop a problem. And while they can award money, they can't enforce payment.

—Daniel DiClerico


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